Spy in Chancery – spy thriller extract

Howard sat in the café, watching the steps which led down to the Métro. He didn’t think he had been followed. When he had entered the station in the Place de la République he had waited until the Number Three train was just about to leave before he pushed open the barrier, ran round a blue-overalled Madame Lafarge as she waved her little flag at him, and jumped into the train. It was the oldest trick in the business, but it seemed to have worked.

As he drank his coffee in the glass enclosure in front of the café in the Place Gambetta, he could see the crowd from the following train coming up into the square, and no one looked remotely like a ‘tail’ who had guessed the right station and was trying to spot him in the milling crowds. There was a fine drizzle falling on the slippery pavements, and the people looked disgruntled, as the French always do at nine o’clock in the morning, hurrying along with heads bent, full of domestic cares.

He glanced at his watch. Six minutes to spare. Exact timing was essential and he had already ascertained how long it would take him to reach the rendezvous. He relaxed and lit a cigarette. He liked to get his thoughts in order before a task as important as this one.

The meeting was to take place—ironically, as it turned out—in a cemetery. Howard had been chosen for the job because he spoke Russian fluently, and what was more had made a special study of defector cases. And there was another reason. The Controller who had briefed him in the old MI6 building in Westminster had put it quite bluntly. ‘It could be a plant,’ he said, ‘and we’re not going to risk blowing any officer from our Paris station. We know quite a lot about the Russian who’s made the approach—Alexei Kuznetsov—and he isn’t the type of KGB operative one would expect to make a run for it. But he’s a man with nasty habits and he may have got himself into a jam.’ He had fiddled with a paper knife, glancing at the rather stolid young man who sat facing him squarely across the cluttered desk. It would need subtlety to handle a slippery bastard like Kuznetsov, and he wondered whether Howard had it.

‘Why risk blowing my cover?’ asked Howard, with a slight smile.

‘Because you’re known to the Russians already—’ he raised a hand against Howard’s protest—’of course you are. After that business in Beirut—and I know it wasn’t your fault—we must regard you as blown. It’s tough, at your age, because it limits the number of places you can be posted to, but there are still a lot of ways you can be useful to the Service, and this is one of them. If all the Paris Rezidentsiya is trying to do, by making defector noises in the general direction of our station, is to make one of our Paris officers break cover, it won’t succeed. Kuznetsov will meet you, and you’re on their books already. But if he’s genuinely asking for political asylum, you’re the man to handle him. You talk his language in more ways than one, and you know how a defector’s mind works and how to bargain before making promises. You’ve got to get him to produce something solid at this first interview-something we can check on.’

‘Even then it can still be a plant,’ pointed out Howard. ‘Look at Berensky—he gave us a sheaf of genuine KGB reports before we caught him out.’

‘Yes, I know. But that’s a risk I’ve got to take. Your job is to minimize that risk by getting Kuznetsov to come across with something really hot. He ought to be able to—he was in the satellite intelligence branch in Moscow before he was posted to Paris. It’s all there.’ He pointed to a stack of files on his desk. ‘Apart from that, your main job, of course, is to get him to stay put, at least for a week or two, so that he can work to a brief.’

‘If he does agree to that, can I handle him from this end?’

‘Yes, I promise you that. And once we’re fairly sure of him you’ll have to make personal contact from time to time, both for detailed briefing and to persuade him to remain in his job. Your interview will be recorded, of course, and you may be able to use that as a lever if all goes well. But all this is the second stage. At this meeting you have only three things to do: satisfy yourself that he’s genuine, get the pay-dirt, and make clear that the longer he stays put, the more golden his future. Right?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Then, if you think he’s OK, fix a letter-drop ,and come home. No contact with the Paris station. You’ll go out the day before, so that you can reconnoitre the ground and get ideas for the letter-drop.’

‘If he insists that he’s got to be given asylum at once—?’

‘Use your judgment. And don’t worry about definitions of political asylum. If we’ve got his voice on that tape—and you must make him say things that are compromising—he’ll have political grounds all right. OK, then.’ He watched Howard pick up the files and walk to the door. Then he called him back.

‘I just want to say this. It’s a stiff assignment I’ve given you. You’ve got to be tough and persuasive at the same time. So good luck, Michael. If you can make him trust you, so that he will go on working for us under your direction like a second Penkovsky, you’ll make a killing.’ He waved his hand and reached for his in-tray.

Afterwards, he wondered whether those last words had been inspired by a premonition of what was to happen.

Howard paid for his coffee and stood up. He put on his fawn Burberry and adjusted the camera case that swung from his neck, so that it lay correctly against his chest. Then he went out on to the square and crossed towards the Avenue du Père Lachaise. The rain was stopping, which was just as well if he was to pose credibly as a photographer on his way to the tomb of Sarah Bernhardt, and he walked briskly up the street towards the main entrance of the great cemetery, passing the mournful row of florists’ and undertakers’ establishments, and so through the iron gates into the empty solitude of Père Lachaise—empty except for the crowded dead and the tall chestnut trees. He went to the ticket office, showed his permit for the camera and bought a ticket.

The routes for both men had been exactly prescribed; Kuznetsov was to enter by another gate on the far side of the cemetery. Howard went along the Avenue de la Nouvelle Entrée to a narrow path which struck off to the left between the heavy grandeur of the tomb of the Marquis de Casariera and a strange dolmen-like entrance to a family vault. The path took him in a straight line between the dwellings of the dead, some severely simple, others covered by tall monuments of a rich mixture of styles, some with tiny chapels like sentry-boxes with rusted iron grilles through which he could see derelict altars and sometimes a few faded flowers.

At the end of the path there was a neo-Roman temple, and beyond he could see the tall trees lining another of the great avenues, but just this side of the temple Howard discovered, on his left hand, the tomb of Sarah Bernhardt, a solid slab of glistening granite opposite a small open space which could not be observed either from the path or the road.

A man was standing there. He wore a grey plastic macintosh and a soft brown hat pulled down on his forehead, above the tinted glasses.

Howard ignored him and busied himself with his camera, sighting at the inscription on the Bernhardt tomb and twisting the focus ring on the lens mounting. He shook his head in frustration and backed away, as if to get a better angle. This brought him near the other man and he glanced at him over his shoulder.

‘C’est difficile, vous savez, avec les réflexions.’

The man replied hurriedly, stumbling over the French words, ‘Vous n’avez pas de photo-flash, monsieur?’

The passwords had been exchanged. Howard straightened and spoke in Russian. ‘I am glad to meet you, Alexei Stefanovich. Take off your glasses, please.’

The man hesitated, then quickly snatched them off. Howard’s face showed nothing of the immense satisfaction he felt. It was Kuznetsov all right; he had seen the photograph on the file. And it was a very frightened Kuznetsov. The man’s face was pale and sweating. This was no plant; this was the genuine article. So much for the Controller’s first point. ‘Thank you,’ he said calmly. ‘Do put them on again, if you wish.’

‘You are Mr Dixon?’

‘Yes,’ said Howard.

‘Mr Dixon, you must help me. I have to leave quickly.’

‘You would be of interest to us only if you stay at your post. Why are you so anxious to leave?’

‘I cannot explain it all now, but I’m in trouble with my colleagues. I am sure they are watching me.’

Howard started. ‘Could they have followed you here?’ he asked coldly, his eyes fixed on the man’s pale face.

‘No. I was careful. I’m sure they cannot know about this meeting. It isn’t that, it’s—Oh God, listen!’ He turned away and doubled round the end of the little temple. Howard heard two gardeners approaching along the path. He was busy with his camera as they passed, smoking their little clay pipes and talking about football. They did not even glance at him. He called the Russian.

‘It’s all right. Pull yourself together.’

Kuznetsov re-appeared. ‘I have to get away,’ he said earnestly, catching hold of the Englishman’s sleeve. ‘Somewhere I can hide and change my name. I will tell you everything I know. And there is much.’

Howard shook his arm free. ‘What branch of the KGB were you in before being posted here?’

‘Satellite intelligence,’ said the man eagerly. ‘I was trained at the scientific school in Kiev. Our spy satellites carry some new and very sophisticated devices for monitoring earth installations. I saw the E.487 demonstrated and it is extremely efficient. I can tell you its specifications and I know most of the programmes—at least, what we were told on the course.’ He peered into Howard’s face anxiously. ‘You must believe me, Mr Dixon,’ he muttered, turning his head from side to side, searching the labyrinth of vaults and tombs and monuments with his restless eyes. ‘I have a great deal to tell your colleagues … A-a-ah!’ It was a muted cry of sheer panic. He gestured towards something behind Howard’s back. The MI6 man turned round.

A sad figure, wearing a long black overcoat and a black hat with a turned-up brim, was moving along between the graves, carrying an enormous wreath of lilies. He was at least fifty yards away. They saw him find the place he was seeking, for he posed the wreath carefully against a stone cross, walked round it and adjusted the black silk banner. Then he sank down on his knees and was hidden by the wreath.

‘He can still see us! He can look through the flowers.’

‘He sees two men talking,’ said Howard scornfully. ‘Listen, Alexei Stefanovich. I am going to have trouble in getting you asylum. You are obviously very worried and I should like to help you, but we have enough Soviet defectors in the West already. Think of the spin-off from the Olympic Games! And then there was Sudakov and Moisic and Mamoulian—’

‘I am not an Azerbaijani weight-lifter,’ said Kuznetsov, affronted, ‘I am a KGB officer.’

‘Yes, so you said when you made your approach,’ said Howard calmly, ‘but you must prove it. We had never heard of you before, and what you’ve told me so far—all that about the spy satellites—well, any man walking along the Nevsky Prospekt could have told me that. I’ve no doubt, myself, that you are what you say you are, but my colleagues are suspicious-minded and I have to make a case for you. Now, what can you tell me that will prove that you are a KGB officer?’

He was glad he had taken the Russian’s mind off the figure crouching by the stone cross. He had no doubt that it was someone sent by the Paris station to keep an eye on the meeting. But he was wrong.

The man in black was carefully sighting a long tube which was hidden in the lilies and foliage of the wreath. A wire ran from the near end to an ear pIug which he had screwed into his ear. He was far beyond normal earshot, but as long as he had his tube trained on the two men by the Roman temple he could hear every word, and Howard’s Russian was clear and precise.

‘That’s not good enough,’ he was saying. ‘What else?’

Kuznetsov groaned. ‘There is something else, which is very important for you, but I know only a part of it. It is in the super-secret category.’

‘Well?’

‘When I was in the satellite section I was shown a report about the Euratom conference which took place in Rome. It was marked “Top Secret”’—he used the English words—’but it didn’t tell us anything of importance.’

‘What’s the good—’ began Howard. ‘Did you say “Top Secret”—in English?’

‘The report was in English, which I can read though I don’t talk well. It was a photostat of the original document, which was a letter with an embossed coat of arms at the top and the heading of the British Embassy in Rome. They told me they had a high-level contact who had been in the Embassy for about two years.’

Howard’s head jerked up. ‘Tell me exactly what the document was like—the subject, the size of the paper, the date, and everything else you can remember.’

The mouth of the man behind the wreath of lilies tightened, and he began to talk quietly through his throat microphone, which connected with a transmitter in his pocket. Then he listened—and drew a deep breath. ‘Da,’ he whispered, ‘da. Kharasho!’ He quickly pulled out of his overcoat pocket a long-barrelled Mauser, a silencer and a light frame which fixed on to the butt. He had the whole thing assembled in twenty seconds and was squinting along the sights, the frame tucked snugly into his shoulder, the ten-inch barrel with its silencer peering out between the lilies.

Kuznetsov had finished his description and was looking apprehensively over Howard’s shoulder. But there was nobody else in sight, only the man hidden by the wreath in the distance. He waited impatiently for the Englishman to speak, but the stolid young man was in no hurry as he went over in his mind the details the Russian had given him.

‘When was it that you saw this document?’

‘Towards the end of March.’

‘And the date on the letter, you’re sure it was March 5th?’

‘Sure.’

‘The copy,’ said Howard suddenly. ‘You said it was a photostat. Couldn’t it have been a carbon copy?’

‘No,’ said the Russian emphatically, ‘it was a photocopy, and what struck me as so curious was—’ The Englishman’s body was thrown against him, and for a moment his hands clawed at him for support. He sprang back, thinking that Howard was attacking him, and then the other man’s body crumpled forward and lay on its face and Kuznetsov saw the hole in the fawn cloth, just below the shoulder-blade, on the left-hand side.

He screamed, and looked up. And there, still forty yards away, came the man in black, waddling forward between the graves like a great vulture. He leaped on to the flat top of a monument which stood in his way, and for a moment was silhouetted against the sky, with the great wreath and the audio tube in one hand and the Mauser in the other.

Then down to ground level again, and on. But always in a straight line for Kuznetsov, who remained frozen with terror like a hypnotized rabbit.

The killer stopped at the Bernhardt tomb and crouched behind it for a moment, staring balefully at Kuznetsov with the gun propped on the granite slab. Then he evidently decided that there was no danger. He laid down the automatic and pulled out his transceiver. When he had made his report he unclipped the shoulder frame from the gun and folded it together. He left the silencer on the gun, which always lay near his hand, and slowly telescoped the audio tube, which he put in his pocket with the frame. He looked round carefully and then laid the wreath in the centre of the granite slab, over the gold letters which spelt out the name of the woman who lay in the tomb below.

Finally, relaxed, he took off his black hat, brushed it lovingly with his sleeve and put it back squarely on his round, close-cropped head.

A hearse drew up quietly in the avenue beyond the temple and three men came running. One of them had an air of command and a thin, intelligent face. He turned over the fallen body with his foot and peered at the face.

‘It’s no one from the Paris station, but I’ve seen his face somewhere. Petrov,’ he addressed one of the men who had come with him, ‘take a good look and check later with the MI6 list. I think it’s a man called Howard, a good officer.’ He looked at Kuznetsov. ‘Too good to die for offal like you.’ It was the first words he had spoken to the man who stood shivering with his back to the wall of the temple. ‘And next time, Alexei Stefanovich, you make a rendezvous with the enemy, don’t choose a cut-out who has been in our pay for several years.’

The man in black behind the granite slab spoke urgently. ‘There’s someone coming down the path. He can’t see you. Shall I—?’ He made a gesture towards the Mauser.

‘Don’t be a fool, one’s quite bad enough. Come over here—slowly—and help. Leave the wreath—that was a good idea. How far away?’

‘Fifty metres.’

‘That’ll do.’ He issued orders in a low voice. ‘Frisk Kuznetsov and take him away. Get the Englishman in there.’ He pointed to one of the sentry-box chapels whose rusty half-grille door stood ajar. They dragged the body inside and propped it against the wall behind the door, the camera case still hanging round its neck. One of the men pulled the camera free from its retaining strap and thrust it into his pocket. Then he felt Howard’s clothes. ‘No tape recorder.’

The leader was listening to the footsteps approaching along the path. ‘Leave him,’ he whispered urgently. ‘Back to the van, quietly.’

The hearse rolled away slowly, decorously, over the glistening cobbles towards the Avenue de la Nouvelle Entrée. The coffin inside it was no longer empty. Kuznetsov lay in the dark, screaming, but no one heard him through the thick oak lid. When they had gone some distance the man in the black overcoat opened the lid to change the air and then clamped it down again. No one wanted Kuznetsov to die just yet.

Inside the little chapel, as the man on the path drew nearer, Howard’s body slumped over sideways against the iron door, which creaked protestingly and closed with a loud clang.

There was no further sound which the man could hear, but he remained completely still, straining his ears, a gun in his hand.

The tiny whirr of the tape recorder was muffled by the false bottom of the camera case in which it was hidden. It still had a few feet of tape to record the grim silences of Père Lachaise.

Apart from that, the Paris Rezidentsiya of the KGB had done its work well.


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