Day of Absolution

Day of Absolution

by John E. Gardner

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780727858085
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication date: 01/28/2002
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

About the Author

John Gardner began his boatbuilding career in 1940 at Graves Boatyard in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He became a leading advocate and teacher of building small wooden boats and wrote more than 850 articles on small boats that appeared in "National Fisherman," "WoodenBoat," "Boating," and "Yachting," among others. He died in 1995.

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Chapter 1

So it came about on a bitter and freezing Wednesday in February at the beginning of the new-millennium that Charles Vincent Gauntlet married Rebecca Louise Olesker, at a civil ceremony with people pulled in off the street as witnesses. They had lived together, in Bex's flat in Dolphin Square, for some months and, in spite of the perceptible age difference, were as happy as they had any right to be, if not happier.

Bex was particularly suited, for her work was -- well, let's just say that any partner had to really understand the Job. She had given up looking for a husband when she first met Gauntlet. It had always been such a letdown. Men never understood, or they wanted to know more, or they just got jealous of the Metropolitan Police Force. Being a detective chief inspector in the Met was bad enough, but to be in the Anti-Terrorist OS13 Branch was something else.

They had met at the funeral of a colleague.

"You knew old Herbie for long?" Charlie asked her. It was almost a chat-up line, and he was quite surprised when Bex said that she had done some quite wild things with Herbie. "It was sudden," she said, giving a sad little smile, her big brown eyes drooping away. "Very quick I understand., Charlie Gauntlet gave her a kind of bracing nod.

This time her eyes locked on him, lips trembling. "Happened in my sitting room." Her voice cracked, "There one minute, gone the next, silly bugger. He went from life to death in the snap of your fingers. Poor old Herb." And now she fixed him with her eyes so that he felt like an insect skewered against a mount and was totally lost to her.

"What d'you do for a living?" Bex asked him sweetly.

"Me? I'm retired. Like old Herb was, out to grass."

Now, if anyone asked Charles Gauntlet what he had done, he would give a wry smile and mutter that he read law at Cambridge but eventually before he was really ready, went on to cio something dodgy for the Foreign Service. Their mutual dead friend, Herbie, had worked for the same firm, only his job had been even more dodgy. "Should've died years ago, Herb," one of his other iffy colleagues had said. "Took a lot of risks when the curtain was still up."

So that was how Charlie and Bex first got together, only Charles had taken early retirement, and one of the boons he brought to the relationship -- and thence to the marriage -- was that he was very much an ex-government employee who knew exactly how to keep his trap shut and not ask awkward questions. He knew how to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, which to Bex's mind was bloody nigh impossible.

In retrospect, the marriage was quirky because she wasn't looking for a husband. Sure, sometimes her thoughts strayed to the idea of tying the knot, then, like a sniper with a plethora of targets, she switched and considered better of it. That was until the Saturday evening when she came back to Dolphin Square and told him that, barring accidents and a change in the wind, she had five days free.

"What you want to do, then, Bex?" he growled, looking up innocent and paradoxically wise at the same time. The stare said, Okay, Bex, you want to go to the movies, or are we seeing Les Misérables for the thirty-sixth time and having a good cry? You want to go out and live it up -- which meant have an Indian or a Chinese, or even an Italian -- or you want to go to the movies? See Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, like I first suggested?

Later she realized that Charlie, cunning bugger that he was, had led her into a trap simply by the way he looked: by his body language and the tilt of his mouth. He was suggesting that probably there was something exceptionally good to see at the movies, and after that they could have a Madras chicken with Bombay Potatoes and lashings of onion pickle and it wouldn't matter.

"What d'you want to do, my darling? You choose for a change." She could almost taste the Madras chicken. She was a martyr to Madras chicken.

"Okay." He shifted on the settee next to her, one hand straying to her thigh, grinned, dropped his voice, almost picked it up again, and whispered, "Well, I'm getting married Wednesday if you agree."

She did a double take, then a treble. He's joking. No, he's not, the bastard. I can see it in that sly little look he's trying to pull.

Gotcha!

"Charlie?" Stern and very grown-up.

The grin widened.

"Charlie, you've set me up..."

"Only if you want it. Only if you want to get married, Bex. Make an honest man of me."

"You've arranged it already..." She remembered that he had quizzed her several weeks before: "Got to make some arrangements, Bex, for when your next leave comes up: your away days, right? Maybe we do something stupid, like take the bus out to Hampton Court. See the armor. Do something daft like get married."

She heard her own voice hurtling from a few weeks ago, "That'll be the day, Charlie. I should live so long."

He now gave her another quick grin, flashing on and off like an Aldis lamp. "So?" Eyebrows lifting, eyes dancing, winking a challenge.

She took a deep breath and committed herself.

So, the police officer and the former lawyer with special duties and clark secrets were married on that raw, cold Tuesday with a delivery-man, a lady bank clerk, a council worker, and a housewife -- only you cannot marry a house so she called herself a wife -- as the witnesses; and the woman registrar beamed, looking like a coiffured owl as she pronounced them man and wife.

After that, Charlie Gauntlet took Bex-in his arms as though she were a fragile piece of porcelain, which she was not, and kissed her as tenderly as she would ever want to be kissed. And she wondered at the whole business: after all, we were up to our asses in platitudes about family values, on the one hand, while people had cast matrimony to the waves on the other. Nowadays people have "partners" and all that, We also have a lot of nonnuclear, single-parent happy families.

Anyway, they went out onto the ice-slick pavements and hailed a cab to take them to the little Italian place off Fleet Street, where they let the padrone into the secret and he treated them to a bottle of champagne on the house. They ate minestrone, calves liver and onions, tomatoes floating in olive oil and a dash of vinegar. The wedding cake was an apple torte off the trolley, with a fistful of cream, and they ordered brandy with the coffee.

Then they went home for the honeymoon, where Charlie announced that he had tickets for The Flying Dutchman that night.

"Not really the most popular choice these days, Charles," she joked.

"Who's worried by popular?"

She explained that opera was -- wrongly -- considered elitist by many. Particularly the current establishment, which made him glum, for he had always been politically slightly left of center. Even so, he had been a shade cutting when the prime minister and the chancellor had both chosen Madonna, Oasis, Boy Zone, and Michael Jackson on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs.

"Thought they were adults," he said again now when his new wife explained the state of the musical nation to him.

"Doesn't stop me liking opera. The Spice Girls aren't obligatory are they?"

"Let's have a little lie down first, darling." She didn't even blush, trollop that she could be when it came to country matters.

Again she was amazed at what Charlie, at slightly less than twice her age, could pull off when he tried. She had learned that if she was not greedy, and if she allowed him to pace himself, she could not want for a better, more satisfying and attentive lover.

The truth about Charlie Gauntlet was that age had not withered him. He really was the kind of guy to whom-age did not matter, either to him or the people he was with. Adult women, unless they had some seriously sorry hang-up, truly did not think of him as late-middle, or even early-old, aged. Charlie was, well, simply Charlie: a man of the twentieth century who did not pin himself down, could not attach himself to a particular decade; just as, until the dosing years of the century, he was never one to really ally himself to any political ideology.

His one true secret was that he was made nervous by retirement. Thought being over-the-hill was a bit unbecoming. Yet that evening Charlie had a kind of epiphany that he thought marked a watershed in his life. Going down to the cab, on Bex's orders so that she could flounce and bounce herself up a little and look nice for him, he nodded to the cabbie who muttered, "Evenin', chief," as Gauntlet slung himself into the back to get out of the cold, said his wife would be down in a minute -- his wife, yes. He did not have to repeat it for the cameras: they're never ready on time, are they? Always late when you'd made reservations, had a schedule, had to get her to the church on time. Never could stick to the program, letter, second. The cabby was loquacious, and Gauntlet was in a schmoozing mood.

So, smiling stupidly, Charlie suddenly realized that he had done the trick he had been trying to accomplish since the demise of the Cold War: he had accepted it as being over. In a couple of stray seconds he had managed to embrace the truth that he had retired and need not march to the beat of the secret silent drum anymore. His smile broadened and he made a slight movement: the stirring of a cat against a leg. His eyes dosed for a few seconds as he luxuriated in the knowledge that he never again had to walk the line and tread with care. It was over for him. He could pack up his troubles in his old kit bag and grin.

The only danger he had to face now was a rogue car, plane, or train, or even the attack of a mutant killer virus. No more the writing on the wall. Well, except for any ghosts that might just come a'haunting from the freezing iceberg year -- and that wasn't all that likely was it?

So, Bex appeared looking wonderful and even statuesque in her big black coat with the turned-up collar that reached almost around her whole head. She pushed her shoulder next to his and moved in a snuggling motion against him as the cabbie tried to set a brisk pace under the impossible conditions of the early-evening London traffic.

Charlie dosed his eyes again, sentimental old fool that he was. When he had first met Bex Olesker he had thought her short of stature, but that was only a trick of the light, for she stood around five-seven in her stocking feet, and sometimes she was clever enough to appear only five-two, while other times she was six feet tall. And then there was the hair. Always different. Sometimes long and dark, then short and honey. After that, all the shades in between. Charlie said that if she could've grown a beard, she would've done it in months that didn't have an r in them.

Her real color, he knew from his unique vantage point, was near black, and as Alfred Hitchcock had said to Tippi Hedren when they were making The Birds, "Grab at it if one flies up your skirt, 'cos a bird in the hand..."

In truth, Rebecca Olesker -- Bex to her friends -- copper of this parish, was a rangy young woman with a hint of the athlete in her long, up-to-her-armpits legs, and a definite way of moving her shoulders that would be enough to frighten off anyone planning larceny or terrorism had they seen her first.

Charlie loved the way she walked, loped really, long, soft strides that whispered if she wore a skirt. He often said to her that her thighs were like silk when they touched one another -- "That's not original, Bex, but it's true."

And Bex? How did Bex view life from the sharp end of being just married? Never ever thought you'd say it, did you, Bex? Never thought you'd ever say you loved someone just like you love Charlie? Love him to pieces: love the scent of him, the maleness and the same cologne he always used, the sweet-smelling successful wonder of him. God, you can almost even smell his smile, just as the old song says, like the sun after rain. You can't put it into words. It's difficult, but you never had the talent with words. Even liked the fickle of his mustache.

Bex Olesker, wonderwoman of the Anti-Terrorist Branch, sat in the back of the taxi, lifted her head from his shoulder, peeked at him, saw the contented smile on his face, and put her head back in its nestling place, giving a sigh like a lovelorn loon, and trying to put it all into words.

"Take a card," Charlie whispered. "Any card."

When she had first met him, a hundred years ago, she had not even particularly liked him. It hit her hours later, all of a sudden, knocked her for six, with his medium height and broad shoulders: very neat the way he walked and moved. He could never be described as handsome, with his deceptively open face that had been the downfall of many an unwary man and woman in the witness box, or that safe house in which the Firm conducted close questioning -- which is another word for interrogation. Once she got over that she was in love with him, she jotted down several little mental notes. Just to remember how he made her feel -- like dancing down the street and throwing a bit of sunlight at her. He could come into a room and pow! -- reach up, grab a handful of sunlight, and hurl it at her so that the whole room took on new dimensions. Bloody hell, Bex, is that you talking?

What would all her liberated, militant feminist friends say? More to the point, what would her mother say if she could listen in to the stream going sliding on the thin ice of her daughter's conscious waking thoughts? "Rebecca Olesker, I've never heard anything like that in all my born days," she would have said. "Becca, you're a wanton young woman."

Say it, Mum, tell me I'm a slut 'cos all I want is for this lovely, overgrown schoolboy of a man to wrap himself round me and pull me close, hold me forever. Bex was amazed to feel like this, because it really wasn't her. Nobody she worked with could possibly recognize her if they listened to this soppy cow.

So it was that they sat with shoulders touching and the ring on her left hand seeming to be out of place and very heavy as they let Wagner's opera rage and rumble over them. They saw and heard the Dutchman's ship enter Sandwike Bay with its bloodred sails and the curse that is on the captain, who must sail the oceans until the Day of Judgment unless he can find a woman who will be faithful only to him. A tall order, Bex thought, but one she could find easy enough if the man happened to be Gauntlet, who was himself thinking the same thing in reverse, but he did not let it show -- at least until the interval, when he whispered, "See, you've to stay faithful to me, Bex, otherwise I turn into a lobster."

"You're a lobster already." She held on to his arm and they struggled into the bar, grabbing the drinks they had already ordered: Perrier water for her and a black coffee for her husband.

Two sips in and one comment on the tenor before Charlie heard the laugh, recognized it, and felt the short hairs rise on the back of his neck.

She saw him prick up his ears, like a meerkat. She doubted if anyone else would notice, but prided herself on her ability to spot the changes in him. Only the tiniest of movements, but to her it was a stretching of the neck, tilting of the head with the gray eyes set absolutely still.

"What's going on?" she all but whispered.

"Ghost. Tell you later." Another sip of the coffee and a turning of the head in the direction of the laugh. He was right, 120 percent, and what the hell was Kit Palfrey doing here in London of all places? They had just about run him out of this city on a rail, but that was thirty years ago. Thirty years and counting. Run him out and then suffered the embarrassment of hearing him tell the world from his new home in Moscow that he was a traitor to his country and proud of it.

Kit Palfrey, spy-about-town, more dangerous than any of them. Part of the so-called Cambridge Ring. Charlie himself had reason to remember Kit, for it was Kit who had...Oh, what the hell. It was over and done with now, long gone, ancient history, and he would have to dredge his mind for the details. Just a bad dream, old Kit Palfrey -- and he rooked pretty old now: sixty-five? Seventy? Well, he would, wouldn't he? It had happened thirty years ago. Doesn't time fly when you've been keeping secrets?

They used to say, the press used to say, and people in the Foreign Service also, that he looked like the film actor James Stewart. He certainly had that tall, thin, gangly frame, and a voice that drawled and seemed to splutter out what he wanted to say: reaching for words that were just over the skyline. But there the resemblance ended, as far as Charlie was concerned. The face was more like that of a different actor: more square, Stocky, angular -- Claude Rains possibly. Yes, Claude Rains's head on James Stewart's body.

Kit Palfrey was one of the group usually lumped together as the Cambridge Spies -- the group that included the notorious Kim Philby -- men who were recruited by the Soviets while at university, then left to make their mark in government departments. Moles, and in some cases moths, in sensitive wardrobes. When they ran to Mother Russia, they caused a huge scandal. Well, it was at the time. Nowadays? Ho-hum, ancient history, and who the hell would he tell anyway? Not a soul would be interested anymore. Palfrey must've been the youngest of the lot. Well, Kit was the only one left alive, and that was certain. The others, all gone, leaving a footnote -- or at best a short chapter -- in the secret-history books. Especially nowadays when the television provided most people with their news: tucking away the sound bite and the two-minute story, reducing history to the level of a cartoon -- except when it turned on you and slugged you in the guts.

As Charlie took another quick look, he noticed that Kit's hair was still in good condition -- still long and flopping around his ears -- and that he had a healthy tan on the weather-beaten face, his eyes not leaving the woman he appeared to be with, lips smiling, moving, and tipping flattery onto the reddish blond head. Oh, Kit, you were always a charmer. In the circles in which Gauntlet had once moved they rated Kit's charm at devastating plus ten. Storm warnings should be hoisted, they said, to warn virgins whenever he came into the room -- not that they needed warning in the current climate.

In that split second, Charlie recalled everything. Hardly the blink of an eye, yet he plainly saw the old Chief's office -- ninth floor above the gasoline company in the now vacated Century House. He'd been a child then, that Monday morning in the very late sixties, a time when swinging London was just starting to wind down. London with Mary Quant, the Beatles, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches, Biba, Twiggy, the Pill, and all the other icons of that turning era beginning to decelerate. Monday morning and the two anoraks from the Security Service -- their sisters with whom they rarely shared anything -- and the wax-skinned suit from the U.S. embassy in Grosvenor Square who had brought the news.

"Former buddy of yours as we understand it," the American drawled. "My people in D.C.'ve asked him to leave. Hope you don't mind. They'll be putting him on a flight from Dulles tonight. Here's the collateral." The hand dipped into the pigskin documents folder and came up with the photographs, which were spread out on the chiefs desk.

Old Kit Palfrey meeting Crakilov, Gennady, First Secretary (Military) to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. The envelope slid across the table and pocketed. Caught in flagrante after all the warnings the Yanks had given them from their huge building among the lush Virginia trees at Langley, or was it McLean? There was the photograph and a few straws in the wind.

"We would suggest," the smooth suit continued, "that you give him a very hard interrogation. Sweat him, get a conf --"

The old chief's palm came down on the desk, flat and hard as his baby blue eyes. "I would be obliged if you'd refrain from trying to teach me my job," he yapped. "We've been doing this for the best part of five hundred years -- since the first Elizabeth -- and you're stating the obvious, and not necessarily the best way to go about matters. Kit Palfrey is a senior officer of this service, and I've yet to see hard evidence..."

In many ways the chief's outburst had a lot to do with the manner in which Palfrey was later to be treated. Nobody wanted to find him guilty. That was the top and bottom of it.

"The photographs --" the American began.

"-- tell us nothing. How do I know they weren't cobbled together in one of your bucket shops? You've never liked him in D.C., and I'd be the first to admit that his drinking habits leave much to be desired. However, there's the possibility that Palfrey has a reasonable explanation --"

The American, who was called Ben Kemp and whose rank in the real world was colonel, let out a one-note contemptuous laugh, and one of the anoraks shook his head. "They told me you'd try to cover it up. Anything to keep it out of the papers, that's what they said at Langley."

The chief sent him packing and Charlie was dispatched to Heathrow with Gus Keene, head of interrogators. Passports at dawn and tired transatlantic commuters slewing off the early-morning arrival.

"Idiot Yanks," Kit had said when they shook hands. "Bloody fools think I'm working for the Russians."

"Are you?" Gus asked as they drove away.

"Don't be daft, Augustus. Don't be a stupid pratt."

But Gus, with Charlie in tow, put him to the question. Very hostile Gus could be when he wanted. All week they interrogated Kit with no results. Charming, relaxed Kit Palfrey laughed at them. Lunatic to even consider that he was tied up with the Reds. Bloody raving if they thought that. Barking. As for the Yanks' photograph of him with Crakilov...well, the envelope was simply some snaps. It was all in the log. He had been cozying up to Gennady in an attempt to turn and burn him. Could he sue the Americans for casting doubts on his loyalty?

"Christopher...?"

"Kit. Nobody ever calls me Christopher. Kit, like Kit Marlowe."

He was a spy as welL Kit Marlowe. Got himself stabbed; maybe for the same business, possibly for betrayal or because of it. Or maybe that film was right and he died in a row about his bar bill. Who knew now?

Come the Friday, Gus told the boss that they would carry on with the hostile questions on Monday. Had nothing as yet. So Kit Palfrey walked away from the beautiful nineteenth-century house in Audley Street where they did that kind of thing.

Home for the weekend, according to the two Special Branch lads who had quietly followed him to the Service apartments off Marylebone High Street.

So they left him alone and there were those who seemed surprised that, come Monday morning, he had gone. The bird had flown. Gone; vamoosed; evaporated; dematerialized; done a bunk. Five weeks later Kit Palfrey resurrected himself in Moscow and immediately started to unbutton his lip about how he had worked for the Sovs since days of yore.

"I never took a penny from my masters, the Soviets. Long ago I came to the conclusion that the state of world politics demanded of me only one way, the way of Communism after the manner of the Soviet Union. I have served that ideal to the best of my ability for a long time."

At that point, Kit Palfrey entered the mythology, beginning a long and almost stately journey. Whenever they wrote books about the so-called Cambridge Spies, they included Kit and he was good value. He even wrote a kind of autobiography himself -- A World of Secrets it was called, and a thrusting, savvy publisher actually walked from his Bloomsburg office on a Friday night, flew to Moscow, picked up the manuscript, and was back on Monday morning with a great coup.

Then the interest waned, and with the downfall of the old Evil Empire it almost completely vanished. The Cold War was won; nobody wanted to read about the secret world, treachery, or betrayal, anymore -- except for somewhat boring history books. Taste shifted, the act of selling your country down the river was devalued. The world turned, the Soviet system collapsed, and the lads of the CIA, SIS, MI5, and the rest sat down and toasted each other, saying, "it's over and we won. Hooray for us!"

Yet, what would Kit Palfrey be doing in London now? Had he sneaked in ? Taken the soft route via Dublin so he would not have to show his passport, or come skulking in via Paris on EuroStar? If they knew he was there, the men and women who worked in the supposedly anonymous building at Vauxhall Bridge Cross, would they care a damn? Would they shout for him to stand trial for treason, this Cold War criminal? Not Pygmalion likely.

One thing was certain -- two things as it turned out -- Kit Palfrey, Esq., should not have been in the United Kingdom, let alone London. The other point was that, when the evening was done and the curtain had fallen on the heroine hurling herself from the clifftops and redeeming the fabled Flying Dutchman, Charlie Gauntlet, newly married, grinning from ear to ear and looking as though he had been stunned by some cartoon frying pan, appeared to be quite unaware of Kit Palfrey's eyes on the back of his head, and oblivious to Kit Palfrey's mouth curved upward in a smile that was as sardonic as the call of a mockingbird.

One thing he did notice, but only vaguely. on the edge of his vision, Charlie was suddenly aware of another figure from his past: there and then gone, in a second, in the twinkling of an eye really. As they walked out through the foyer, jostled shoulder to shoulder with the crowd, he caught sight of a tall slim, seedily elegant figure moving quickly against the throng.

He did not so much see Patsy Wright -- once his link to those who did derring-do: the fighting hands in the more dangerous European capitals during the years when they crunched their way over the permafrost -- as sense him, catch sight of his reflected silhouette against the skyline of the crowd. Charlie turned, frowning as they reached the street, his eyes searching behind him, trying to catch sight of his old comrade: there one minute and gone the next.

In the taxi, after the Dutchman's soul had found rest following true love, Bex laid her head on Charlie's shoulder again and murmured, "He wasn't looking for you, Was he?"

"Who looking for who?"

"Whom."

"Whom. Looking for whom?"

"Kit Palfrey, he wasn't looking for you, was he?"

"You're not old enough to know Kit Palfrey."

"Don't change the subject. I'm not old enough to remember the events, but I'm old enough to read about them. What's more, only a few years ago -- a handful of years -- when the Evil Empire was still evil, we had an alert out on Mr. Palfrey. Some bright spark thought he was heading up some Russians who were feeding guns to terrorists."

"So you can read. Okay."

"Charlie, he wasn't looking for you, was he?"

"Shouldn't think so. I guess he hated my guts really, though we had nobody who could break him. Not even old Gus Keene could sort him out. God knows we both tried." Pause. Count of ten. "No, I'd be very surprised if he was looking for me." Which shows you just how wrong some people can be.

Back in Dolphin Square, they did not know that their lives had been bisected by events long traveled. Each, in his and her Way, was about to take up a new course, navigate to an undreamed-of bearing to plow a new furrow.

Speaking of plowing, the honeymoon continued, but was interrupted at a little after two in the morning when they were both curved like spoons lying together in velvet, just reaching out for sleep.

Bex cursed, fumbled for the telephone on its third ring, almost knocked over the glass of water, and whispered, "Olesker," into the mouthpiece.

"Sorry, ma'am," the voice at the distant end breathed. "The commander wants you in. Alchemist's active again."

She cradled the instrument, swore under her breath, then slid unwillingly from the bed's warmth, gathered up her clothes, and tiptoed to the bathroom.

Bleary, she gave herself a quick wink in the mirror and started to wash. Feeling sexy in the wee small hours. Would've given a bit of her pension to get back into bed and wake Charlie from his private dreamland.

Instead, she left a note for him -- Sorry, my love, my husband, but duty calls. Commander Bain needs me back in the salt mines. See you When I see you. Love being married to you, Bex -- and a couple of hugs and a kiss: OXO.

So, Bex Gauntlet, nee Olesker, of the Anti-Terrorist Branch, headed off to work, not knowing the call of duty meant she would miss the unscheduled meeting between her husband and Kit Palfrey, but, at the moment, she had other fish to fry. Alchemist, to name but several.

Copyright © 2000 by John Gardner

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