To find an old friend, a past-his-prime spy steps into a war zone
When Henry Edwards recruited him to work as an intelligence officer, Peter Marlow was young enough that espionage seemed romantic. They were in Cairo during the Suez Crisis, two young spies haunting dinner parties and back alleys in search of morsels of information that were never as important as they seemed. A decade later, espionage has lost its sheen, and Henry confesses to Peter that he’s considering resignation. A few days later, he’s gone. Is Henry dead, or is he planning to defect? Either way, the service wants him buried. Peter is sent to Cairo in search of his old friend. But as war looms over Israel and the Arab states, and President Nasser’s life comes under threat, Peter’s task becomes more challenging than he would like. Espionage is a young man’s game, and more than ever before, he feels close to the grave. The Private Sector is the first book in the Peter Marlow Mystery series, which also includes The Sixth Directorate and The Valley of the Fox.
About the Author
In addition to his espionage fiction, Hone has found success in travel writing. His most recent books include Wicked Little Joe (2009), a memoir, and Goodbye Again (2011).
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The Private Sector
A Peter Marlow Mystery
By Joseph Hone
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1971 Joseph Hone
All rights reserved.
I don't know. certainly I'm not going on Williams's calculations. It may have been a week before—or a day. Anyway, sometime before he disappeared, for no good reason I could think of, Henry had given me an Egyptian ten-piastre note: the remains, among other pieces of grubby paper—hotel bills, ticket stubs and so on—from one of his trips abroad. He'd thrown the mess down on my office table, just after he'd come back from Egypt—from one of his "missions", as he described his visits to that part of the world which interested him most. When he went further afield—east or west—he talked simply of having been on a holiday, as if the only real work he did took place in the Middle East. And that was probably true though I didn't know much about his work. We were friends in other ways.
Perhaps he had meant to encourage me with this collage of foreign bric-à-brac—encourage me to travel or to sympathize with my not having travelled (I did very little of that); or perhaps the rubbish which he emptied on my desk that afternoon was his way of saying the journey hadn't really been necessary. Again, though I knew Henry well, I'm not sure what effect he intended—which was fair enough, I suppose, for a man whose job it was to conceal things. Later it struck me that this clearing out of his pockets might have had something to do with his disappearance—but it's not the sort of thing one thinks of questioning one's friends about when it happens. It was one of the few details which Williams didn't manage to worm out of me so perhaps it had a significance.
I'd been with Henry in Egypt years previously—we'd both been teachers there before I'd joined Intelligence—so later that day in the tiny afternoon drinking club round the corner from our building in Holborn, I'd listened willingly to his account of the trip; days spent in empty, paneled bars we'd both known in Cairo, places the English had once patronized, like the Regent at the top of Kasr el Nil with its flaking discoloured mirrors advertising long-vanished tonic waters. And other days when he'd gone across to the Gezira Club on the island, drinking with the last of the old-style Egyptian playboys. Henry had been looking for someone, looking for leads—another of our men had disappeared, I gathered. It was happening all the time then. But he didn't go into that. It could wait until he saw McCoy. McCoy was his immediate control. In fact on that trip I remember him saying he'd not spent much time in the smarter, previously European parts of Cairo—the centre, around Soliman Pasha Street, Opera Square, the corniche by the Nile and the smart Embassy apartments in the Garden City beyond the New Shepherd's Hotel. He'd been in the back streets behind Abdin Palace, in old Cairo beneath the Citadel, in and around the dusty flarelit alleys which clustered about the Mousky bazaar.
Somewhere on these slopes of the old city he'd been staying with Robin Usher, our Cairo Resident, a man he'd first met years earlier when he lectured at Fuad University just after the war.
"I was with Robin most of the time. You should have got to know him better. An incredible house, rather like a male harem with cushions and boys littered all over the place. But genuinely Mameluke. One of the very few left. A jolly old party, especially when he's had a few. Though I must say the boys were inclined to get under one's feet. 'A thing of beauty is a boy forever'—that was rather his style. That and the Daily Telegraph—it's all the English have left in Egypt. Can't blame them really."
Henry, without being aware of it, for he was a displaced colonial, used a slangy Edwardian shorthand when talking about the truly English. It was his way of admiring them without admitting it.
He had been talking about Cairo ten years after Suez and it was this new situation in the country which attracted him. "The fun of going back somewhere and finding it quite gone to seed," as he put it.
He'd talked as little as possible in my office in Information and Library.
"What a terrible place to meet again," he'd said as he shuffled through his pockets, staring sadly at the haggard walnut furniture, the files of Arab newspapers, the half-carpet, and the hat stand I never used. And then, looking out at the mass of hideous concrete that had cropped up all around us: "You used to be able to see St. Paul's."
I liked the way he used the phrase "meet again" as if we'd met that afternoon quite by chance and he and I didn't work for the same organization. Not that I'd ever thought he worked for "somebody else" as Williams used to describe whoever the "other side" happened to be at the time. I thought then that Henry was simply being his own man.
We went on that evening to a wine bar further down the Strand, a place we'd gone to for years and where Henry ordered champagne—as he did whenever we met after he'd got back from a trip. I don't think he really liked the drink; he bought it, I always thought, because it was expensive and because he could run his finger down the side—tracing a line through the condensation like a child playing on a clouded window pane—to see if it was cold enough. He enjoyed touching things carelessly, as though wondering whether to steal them—looking warmly at strangers as if he'd suddenly seen an old friend. He had that trick of immediate intimacy, a headlong approach to any experience, and he drank too much.
Because I liked Henry's humanity—envied it obviously—and envied his sense of invention and ease of manner, I thought them to be the qualities that had made him good at his job. One never likes to think of one's colleagues in a dull occupation as being less tied to it than oneself so it never properly struck me until after he'd disappeared that this naïveté and freshness were quite at odds with the sort of work he had to do—the depressing daily grind of extracting information from people or things—of spying on them. Though that word evokes a drama which our work never had.
I had done very little work in the field, not since I'd been a teacher in Egypt after Suez and even then there had really been a minimum of danger or personal confrontation in the job. I had prepared elaborate memoranda on the situation there when I came back on leave to England and now I did the same thing in London, from Arab newspapers, without going anywhere. Sometimes I "evaluated" reports from people in the field, which went on to the Minister, but McCoy liked to do most of that now, hogging the few excitements of our department for himself. I thought Henry by comparison was happy with his position, which at least took him all over the place, and I was surprised that evening when he said he wanted to get out.
"It's a hack job. We shouldn't fool ourselves. If we hadn't been together in Cairo then we'd never have been involved. If we hadn't had some Arabic, had connections there ..."
"If we hadn't wanted it ..."
"The excitement. That Embassy party. We thought—didn't we?—that our bits and pieces of information were important. We were stupid enough. If we hadn't been—things would have been different. We might have still been there. Teaching. I suppose we thought it more exciting than that."
I spoke of the past indefinitely, as if I'd forgotten it. I knew we both had thought it was more interesting then—that summer after Suez. There had been those madmen, Usher and Crowther, at the Embassy then—whose veiled suggestions and eccentricities in that empty Egyptian summer had been a happy reminder of secret and important purposes elsewhere—when we had chatted vaguely about some distant political mischief on the Queen's Birthday and the suffragis had chased to and fro beneath the flame trees on the huge lawn, stumbling under the weight of the ice buckets and martini trays.
There is an innocence about the beginning of things, a blindness I suppose most would call it—even in work as sordid as ours—which keeps one at the job for years in the hope that we may be able to recapture the freshness of the original impetus which drew us to it, some of the morality which we gave to it all then. And I thought this was what must be worrying Henry: the disappointment of a wrong turning long ago, of expectations lying in the gutter. Once, it had worried me too. But I'd soon come to see that sort of loss as being part of the deal.
Henry looked at a woman across at another table in the quiet back room. The commuters, the Principal Officers from Orpington and Sevenoaks, had had their dry sherries and left. The candle flames on the barrels were dead still in the air. She must have been a secretary from one of the Government offices nearby, getting on a little, with an older man who didn't look like her husband or her boss. There was an intense awkwardness between them—as if they'd just started on something, or had just ended it.
"I wish I could wake up one morning only knowing Irish. And just the name of a village near Galway. I'd like it all to stop. And start again."
"The Olive Grove Syndrome. The song of a man at forty," I said. "You can't stop it. And you'd be no good at anything else if you did. They've seen to that. You've got a job after all, a trade: how would you describe it?—to pretend, to cheat, only to go for the man when he's down and so on. The dark side, like insects under a stone. The real world would kill you, if you ever got into it again. With its haphazard, petty deceits, its vague decencies—you'd be quite out of your depth. There'd be something wrong in it for you, things you wouldn't follow at all. You'd feel like an innocent man in prison. When you accepted your language allowance for colloquial Arabic you accepted all the rest."
I was facetious since I didn't really believe Henry was being serious. But he was, I suppose. He smiled at the girl, hopelessly.
"It's all a toytown. A lot of dour old men who can't forget their youth and their good sense over Munich—who think they can live it all over again by casting Nasser as another Hitler. They're as stupid now as Chamberlain's mob were then. One could resign." And then he added, as if he'd already made the decision—but this may be only hindsight—"You should leave too."
Afterwards we dropped the subject and talked again about Egypt ten years before—about everything we'd done then, except the woman I'd married towards the end of my time there and who at that moment seemed as remote as it.
When we left Henry didn't have enough money to pay and he'd somehow mislaid his cheque-book—probably among the debris he'd thrown down on my desk—so I gave the barman, a friend of ours, the ten-piastre note as a sort of deposit. "Don't worry, he'll be back," I said.
Anyway, when McCoy said Henry had gone I'd assumed he meant on another trip, and I said, "So soon—where to?"
"No, I meant 'disappeared' not 'gone'." He underlined the difference like a schoolmaster, looking at me as if I'd been responsible for the inaccuracy.
"He was to have reported on his whole Mid-East operation last Thursday. At the area committee. He never turned up."
I said nothing. I'd known Henry to be away for days on a drinking bout without too many ill effects; he'd always turned up again and I was sure that McCoy knew this too. He'd probably been the first to report him as a security risk for his drinking years before. But people didn't listen to McCoy—not the sort of people who ran our section. He wasn't one of them.
McCoy was from Belfast, a Navy man and a Nonconformist who'd been a shipping movements officer in Port Said for part of his war. An abrupt, short-sighted fellow, he'd been taken off active duty—there had been one or two near collisions in the harbour or something—and had joined Middle East Intelligence. He was good at picking up languages—perhaps the missionary spirit of his creed hadn't quite died in him—and he'd made his way up through the ranks in London after the war. It was one of his jobs to coordinate reports from the field for "processing" at "committee level" —his words for the endless, pointless, claustrophobic chatterings which went on all over our building—and he treated his informants, and their information, like a breach of Queen's Regulations. He wasn't at ease in matters of deceit. He didn't like his position as a filter between the sordid and respectable and he looked at me now like a shopkeeper I'd not paid in full.
"You mean he's left—for good," I said flatly, playing as limp a hand as possible since I'd no intention of making things worse for Henry by being helpful. None the less McCoy perked up a little as if I'd presented him with a vital clue to the mystery.
"Yes, that's one way of putting it. Nothing good about it though."
"Anyway, why should I know about his leaving? I'm just a friend of his. I'm not his operator."
"You were the last person to see him apparently. He came to your office the day before—well, sometime before he left. Perhaps he told you something and perhaps—" he paused like a ham actor settling into a role—"perhaps you might tell me. There'll be an enquiry. It might help if you spoke to me about it first. It looks as if this may be something on the Blake scale all over again. You may want to sort your ideas out beforehand. I shall want a full report from you anyhow."
McCoy paused after each sentence, like counsel bullying a witness with inessentials before slipping in a loaded question—looking at me each time for a response I didn't give.
What with the disappearances, deaths and defections over the years—and the odd person who had genuinely retired—the ranks in our Middle East section had thinned dramatically by the spring of 1967. We were a few survivors, still snooping around by hand as it were—planning cunning sorties along dark alleyways in Cairo and through hotel bedrooms in Beirut only to find when we got there that the lights had gone on again all over the Middle East; that whatever bird it was we'd had in mind was flown or dead, the blood already congealed by the time we turned the body over. Other powers ruled the area where once we had been the sword of punishment and mercy—and did so with a thorough modern brutality which we couldn't hope to emulate, much as our superiors would have wished it. We could only work off our energy by keeping up appearances at home, for the sake of the press or a new Minister—or the Americans. And of course everyone sprang to attention and looked like Kitchener whenever someone defected from our section—when one "disappeared" as McCoy put it, as if one had been the victim of some fiendish conjuring trick and we only had to put the squeeze on the magician to get him back. For even after so many tricks McCoy still couldn't face the fact that one of his men had gone for good. When this had happened before, like the headmaster of some wretched prep school trying to placate a parent, McCoy had always implied in his approach to the enquiry that the laggard would be back in time for chapel.
Still, even if Henry had done something careless it didn't seem important. He'd always struck me as being too sensible a person ever to want to defect; he was too sure of himself, his pleasures and his friends and the way they all fitted into his London to want to throw it all over, I thought. In our section there wasn't much left to betray anyway. Blake had pretty well cleared the shop. But perhaps Henry had been involved in some drunken accident, some schoolboy nonsense—as when he'd broken his ankle lunging out at a taxi at a zebra crossing.
"Has he been in some brawl? Have you checked the hospitals? He lived alone you know. And are you sure I was the last to see him? Have you been in touch with any of his other friends?"
McCoy sat there quietly. It was my turn to ask the staccato questions; the chance that Henry had been hurt seemed to me something to worry about. Like a parlour game McCoy let me run through a variety of suggestions. None of them got a response. In the end he smiled.
Excerpted from The Private Sector by Joseph Hone. Copyright © 1971 Joseph Hone. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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