Greek Fire – spy thriller extract

On the plush-carpeted tenth floor of the SIS building in Southwark, the floor where the chief, his secretariat and his special aides have their offices, there is a door marked Chief Inspector.

The chief inspector, in the Intelligence Service, is not a police officer. His task is to keep an eye on all intelligence operations abroad and the administrative sections at Head Office, and make sure that security rules are observed, complaints investigated and that officers and staff are as efficient as possible. Any adverse report on an SIS executive, any unexplained leak to the media, any intercepted foreign intelligence mentioning SIS activities, lands up on the chief inspector’s desk, and his officers go into action, fast. C.I.’s deputy, at the time of these events, was Lucas Grant, and it was he who on a misty October morning was called into C.I.’s office.

Bratby looked up, frowning, and without a word passed across the desk a copy of an en clair telegram sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. ‘It’s bad news, Luke. I’ll explain when you’ve read it.’ He rose, and went to look out of the window, through the faint mist, at the Shell Building and the distant glimpse of St Paul’s.

‘HEAD OF PERSONNEL, FCO. REGRET TO REPORT ROGER INGRAM HAS BEEN FOUND DROWNED OFF WEST COAST OF CORFU. INGRAM HAD BEEN MISSING SINCE SATURDAY EIGHTH OCTOBER WHEN HE WENT BATHING NEAR GLYFADA WHERE HE AND HIS WIFE WERE ON LEAVE. BODY FOUND YESTERDAY AND IDENTIFIED BY WIFE. NO SIGN OF FOUL PLAY. VICE CONSUL CORFU TAKING ALL NECESSARY ACTION. MACARTNEY, ATHENS.’

Grant was puzzled. His chief had turned round and was still frowning. ‘What’s wrong, Nigel? Ingram was one of ours, of course—I remember briefing him before he went to Athens, about four years ago. But surely he’s been transferred to Head Office since then, hasn’t he? And incidentally, I didn’t know he was married.’

‘He wasn’t. He only met his wife after his transfer to London. I think you’d better hear the whole story from his controller.’ He pressed a switch and spoke at his desk telephone. ‘Lucy, ask controller/Greece to come in now, please.’

The man who came in, Robert Sankey, was middle-aged, with a pleasant, open face which at the moment was wearing a very worried expression. ‘Morning, Nigel. Morning, Luke,’ he said nervously, then blurted out. ‘I should never have let him go. I’m afraid I’ve let you in for an awful can of worms, Nigel.’

‘Sit down, Robert,’ said C.I. gently. ‘No one’s blaming you for anything so far. Just tell Luke the whole story, from the beginning. I haven’t told him anything yet.’

‘OK.’ He turned to Grant. ‘Ingram worked a three-year posting in Athens. He had a delicate job to do, and did it very well. But we couldn’t risk declaring him to the Greeks. As far as they were concerned—and the Soviets, too, we hoped—he was just another First Secretary in our Embassy.’

Grant raised a hand. ‘Why exactly couldn’t you declare him to the Greeks? You have a liaison with their Intelligence, haven’t you?’

‘Because, as I said, it was a very delicate job he was doing, and although our relations with the Greeks are good we couldn’t be sure someone, somewhere down the line, wouldn’t leak to the Russians, and that’d have been disastrous.’ Grant nodded, and Sankey went on, a little calmer now. ‘This was the job. One of the KGB chaps in the legal residency in Athens—Major Nikolai Vlasov, with cover as Second Secretary, Information, in the Soviet Embassy—was working on a ploy we very much wanted to know about, and when I say “we” I don’t only mean HMG, but NATO Directorate of Intelligence. One of Vlasov’s agents is a Greek journalist named Spiro Katastari, whose task is to explore links between the Greek minority in Southern Albania—there are forty thousand of them—and their relatives in Greece. Katastari is a talent-spotter only—trust the KGB not to let anyone know too much. When he finds someone with relatives in Albania, someone who can be worked on through family feelings or the prospect of hard cash, he vets him as best as he can by getting to know him, and then fingers him to Vlasov, who takes it from there, using specialist local recruiters, I suppose. But that’s all we know. We couldn’t discover the object of the exercise. When Ingram finished his tour in Athens last year we let his assistant, who’s a very bright girl and keen on action, take over his job as case-officer for Katastari.’

‘Case-officer? You mean Katastari’s a double agent?’

‘Yes, but we’ve every reason to think his main loyalty—which I may add is highly rewarded—is to us, and that Vlasov hasn’t a clue about his contacts with Jenny. That’s the girl—Jenny Otfield.’

Grant looked, as he felt, baffled. ‘But if Otfield is running this double now, and has been for the past year, how does Ingram come into the picture?’ He started. ‘You can’t mean you allowed Ingram to keep in touch with an agent while someone else was handling him? It’d be breaking a cardinal rule, and you know it, man.’

The chief inspector saw Sankey’s face going first red, then pale and angry, and intervened. ‘You’re rushing your fences, Luke. Let him explain.’

‘I’m sorry. Go ahead, Robert.’

‘The point is Katastari’s a Greek, so he doesn’t take too well to the idea of being run by a woman. It wasn’t Jenny’s fault, from what head of Athens station told me; she was handling the man very well. But he got wind of Ingram’s visit to Corfu, and wormed his holiday address out of Jenny, saying he wanted to send him his best wishes for the married state, or something like that, and Jenny—reluctantly, I’d imagine, but for the sake of her relations with him—let him have his way, only insisting that if he wrote to Roger it should be something quite innocuous and not signed with his own name. It seemed quite a reasonable request for Katastari to make. After all, he and Roger Ingram had worked together for three years, and although they could only meet in secret they were friends.’

Sankey saw the disapproving look on Grant’s face, and hurried on. ‘But it wasn’t just good wishes that Spiro sent. It was a message, all wrapped up in double-speak, about having found the solution to the chess problem he and Roger had puzzled over so long, and that as he’d shortly be visiting Corfu on holiday he’d get in touch. He added that Roger would be absolutely fascinated by the solution. The letter was signed with a pseudonym known only to them both.’

Grant said mildly, ‘Not very good tradecraft, was it? Short-circuiting his case-officer like that? Katastari had had field training, I suppose?’

The chief inspector said, ‘Let him get on with it,’ and Grant subsided.

Sankey said, ‘He had been trained and it wasn’t good tradecraft, but to continue: Ingram couldn’t write to the man direct and tell him to hand over whatever it was to the girl, so he ought to have let Spiro know through Jenny that he didn’t want any contact with him. But … ’ Sankey looked appealingly at Grant. ‘You know how it is, Luke. God knows you’ve had enough field experience yourself. Every case-officer believes he’s the only one who really understands his agent, and that anyone else will make a balls of the relationship sooner or later. And of course Ingram was mad keen to find out what the “solution” was. So he found someone in Corfu who was flying to Athens the next day—an English friend he could rely on—and gave him a letter to deliver to the Embassy, addressed to head of station. More wrapping up, of course, but he reported what had happened and said he proposed to see the chap, take what he had to offer, and give him a raspberry for going over Jenny’s head. And that,’ concluded Sankey, ‘is all we know. Head of station sent us an immediate signal explaining what had happened, but before we could reply the Embassy had wired the Office with the news of the death.’

Grant nodded. ‘C.I. showed me the cable. Did they say they were going to send Miss Otfield to investigate the death on the spot?’

Sankey looked at him in surprise. ‘It’d be too dangerous, Luke. You see, Jenny’s not in Consular Department at the Embassy, she’s Commercial. So why should she be making enquiries about the death of a Brit sub?’

‘I see. You don’t think it was an accident, do you, Robert?’

‘No, I don’t. Why should this happen just at the moment when Ingram was expecting to meet Katastari and receive vital information? No, I’m afraid I think Roger was murdered, but if so why? Murder is going a bit far, even for the Russians. We don’t usually liquidate each other’s officers. There’s something very odd about this. It may be Katastari lured Ingram into a trap, and he took a gun along with him—he’d be a bloody fool not to—and they knocked him off before he could use it. The thing is, how do we find out? Personnel have offered to send out someone, which is decent of them but it wouldn’t be good enough. We need someone who’s an investigator—an SIS investigator, I mean—and who’s clean as far as my parts of the world are concerned. I’d go myself, but I’m declared to the Greeks and the moment I started asking questions they’d get very interested indeed. So would the Soviets.’ He stopped and looked at Grant hopefully, rather like a dog suggesting it was time to be taken for a walk.

‘I’ve got a trip to India lined up for next Thursday,’ said Grant.

‘It’s only a question of a couple of days, Luke,’ said Bratby, still at the window. ‘And it’s true you’re clean, as far as this thing is concerned. You’ve always been connected with Western stations.’ He meant Western Europe and the Americas. ‘I don’t suppose you even speak Greek.’

‘Apart from vestigial traces of the classical idiom used by Pliny,’ said Grant with a touch of sarcasm, ‘I haven’t a word. I don’t think I’m a good choice, you know,’ he added, turning to Bratby. ‘The whole areas’s a closed book to me.’

‘But you could have an interpreter,’ suggested Sankey eagerly. ‘Someone in the know, of course.’

Grant looked at him sharply. ‘Like Miss Otfield?’ he asked. ‘Is that it?’ Bratby was looking out of the window again. This suggestion wasn’t new to him, obviously.

‘She speaks very fluent demotic Greek and isn’t blown to the Greeks,’ explained Sankey. ‘Your cover could be as a member of Personnel, FCO, arriving in time for the funeral with messages from Roger’s friends in the Office and of course you’d want to see that Clare Ingram is all right, as far as she can be.’

Sankey saw the look on Grant’s face and hurried on. ‘I know I ought to have prevented this happening. He told me he’d taken this villa in Corfu for his honeymoon and I ought to have warned him that Katastari might try and contact him. But of course I thought the man was in Athens and unlikely to find out about Roger’s visit. All the same I should have told him flatly it wasn’t on. If I had, he mightn’t be dead now.’

Grant saw the misery in the man’s face and relented. ‘You couldn’t have known,’ he said gently.

‘I had no right to take the risk. It’s such a bloody waste,’ Sankey burst out suddenly. ‘Roger was a first-class man, just the type we want for the Middle Eastern stations, and God knows it’s difficult to find the right man these days. And Clare, too. I didn’t get to know her well, but she seemed to be just the calm, sophisticated type of girl who’d stand all the strains and stresses without losing her cool. A beauty, too—not pretty, just beautiful—and obviously in love with Roger. Poor Clare! The bottom’ll have dropped out of her world.’

At last the chief inspector turned round and came back to his desk. One glance at Grant’s face was enough. Sankey’s obvious distress had done more than any reasoned argument. ‘Are you quite happy to go, Luke?’

Grant wriggled his shoulders. ‘I’m not happy, for God’s sake, because I loathe going to a place I know nothing about and where I can’t speak the language. But of course I’ll go.’ He turned to Sankey. ‘Give me a letter for Clare Ingram, and I’ll take it with me. Can your people get me the ticket for the first flight tomorrow, and arrange with the MO for jabs tonight, if necessary. I’m OK for cholera and TAB. Do I need a visa?’

‘No. And you won’t need any jabs either. I’m very grateful, Luke. It shouldn’t delay your Indian trip. Just find out what you can from the V-C and Clare. Jenny’ll help. She’s a splendid girl, gutsy and with a lot of common sense. You’d better pretend to know her quite well already. Then it’ll seem natural for you to be seen together. Come down to my room and I’ll give you more briefing on Soviet/Albanian relations. Anything else?’

‘Yes. A good guide to Corfu.’

The chief inspector watched them go. He smiled.

* * *

In all Russian embassies the KGB officers are only allowed to work in the dismal referentura, which consists of a number of sound-proofed offices, artificially lit and ventilated, to which access is obtained through an ante-room, guarded around the clock by armed operatives, and a steel, bomb-proof door. All the windows are bricked up to foil long-range photographic and electronic snoopers.

In Athens, life in the Embassy referentura was particularly hard, for the ‘legal resident’, Colonel Andreev, was a slave-driver, and his minions were bitterly envious of colleagues in the ‘illegal residency’—whom of course they were not allowed to meet—who worked under commercial cover as TASS or shipping representatives in Piraeus, and who had to be allowed a certain degree of freedom to mix with the locals and enjoy what Greece had to offer. Even greater envy would have been aroused by the knowledge that one member of their group, Nikolai Vlasov, lived two hundred miles away in Corfu, playing the part of a rich Italian with a handsome seaside villa.

But Vlasov’s operation was known only to his chief, Andreev, and the cipher clerks in the Athens referentura. Andreev sat in his stuffy office for long hours like a spider in the centre of his web. He was not in a good temper when he pressed the desk buzzer and told his secretary to bring in Major Vlasov, who had been summoned to Athens for urgent consultation. The colonel did not like bright, know-all young officers, and especially one who had an uncle in the Politburo.

Vlasov came in, saluted, and remained standing. He was not invited to sit down. Andreev looked up from the report he had been reading. ‘Why was it necessary to liquidate this man? He could have been a mine of information if properly interrogated. It seems to me you acted very harshly, Nikolai Viktorich.’

‘I will explain, Comrade Colonel,’ said Vlasov, and did so at length, in a text-book style that could not be faulted.

Grudgingly, Colonel Andreev nodded. ‘You seem to have wriggled out of the jam neatly, Major, and I hope for your sake nothing goes wrong now. You are confident that the operation can go forward?’

‘Yes, Comrade Colonel.’

‘Very well. You’d better get back to Corfu. Watch your cover.’ The chief seemed to have finished with him, but as Vlasov, greatly relieved, turned to go the older man said quickly, E come stà la dolce vita di Corfu, Signor Rossi?

Come sempre, Colonello,’ drawled Vlasov, with the easy assurance of an Italian playboy. His official manner had vanished. C’è la vita di caffè . Si guarda Ie belle ragazze, si beve ouzo, e poi …’

‘That’ll do, that’ll do,’ said his chief, a little discomfited. ‘Just keep it up. This operation is only part of something much bigger, don’t forget, and if we fail in our part we get blamed for the whole.’

And what on earth did that mean, thought Vlasov resentfully, as he pressed the release spring of the steel door.


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