ABELARD GAZED AT his present setting. He had been there a while: long enough for some heavy thematic thoughts and satisfying moments of mild self-pity. It was a filthy but nicely deep shop doorway off Praed Street, close to London’s Paddington station. From here he could watch the lit-up windows of a first-floor flat almost opposite. The side streets in this area had a pattern: small shops, cafés, fast-fooderies and the occasional restaurant at the busier end of the street, near the main drag, and then, further up, big, elderly properties that had long been turned into apartments or bed-and-breakfasts. Fast-food cartons made up the bulk of the litter, but with plenty of help from papers and other debris.
Abelard’s spot was the entrance to a card, fluffy toy and souvenir shop, closed now. From here he watched and wondered if he was being watched: the same old twitch, the same old threat, despite so many shifts and amendments lately in his job. Cars parked nearby gave him worry. They shouldn’t have been there, anyway. This was double-yellow country, no parking, even at night. Perhaps they weren’t parked, only stopped. All the cars seemed occupied. They might be punters about to kerb cruise for girls, or punters and girls on a short time, or pimps ready for girls to return with the takings, or vice police keeping a fatherly eye. After all, this was Paddington and Paddington was still Paddington, despite the odd clean-up. Possibly one vehicle might hold a deputation waiting for Abelard: a big old Rover seemed full of shoulders, wide necks and sharp chins, the faces turned his way, most likely not balletomanes.
He kept alert but also continued with the heavy thinking and self-pity. Lurking like this was not really his kind of work. So, adapt, Abelard. Pampered, elegant, pissed off, misused, nervy, black – or at least half black – he reckoned he’d already begun a transformation, in fact. There had been a time when he was… all right, the crude and melodramatic word would do… when he was a spy: yes, crude, but a word people understood. And, it was more or less accurate. More than less. As a young graduate he’d joined Her Majesty’s security services and was deftly trained to preserve the secrets of his country; or, if he switched squad, to lift the secrets of other countries. Now, though, as was famous, secrets at home and abroad had dwindled. Now meant post-Wall. Now meant almost a decade post-Wall, plenty of time for secrets to dry up, or to become irrelevant, and for idleness and redundancy to set in among spies; dangerous idleness, serious redundancy. This was 1997.
Somehow, Abelard had held on to his job, even advanced in the career, but knew that it and he were changing, were getting modified. He had become a policeman: a sort of detective – plain clothes, no helmet or silver buttons, but a policeman, all the same. Officialdom did not call him that, of course. Nominally, he remained, as ever, an agent, a spy. The duties defined him as something else, though. It was not what he had joined for.
So, what had he joined for? To preserve the realm? This sounded large and flatulent, but, yes, to do that. Perhaps the realm did not need Abelard or the workmates of Abelard to preserve it any longer. In those years since the Wall collapsed – was collapsed – the realm found it could look after itself, because fewer enemies threatened. Political certainties had faded, and the hatreds that went with them. Bloc thinking, Bloc subterfuge, undercover Bloc gallantries were obsolete, and doctrinal wars involving Britain unlikely now the greatest secular doctrine of them all had been as good as buried by the Berlin rubble. Northern Ireland was still active, naturally, but that made up a special corner with work for a very special cabal. Except in Africa and South America – remote, remote – coups grew rare; for-your-eyes-only plans about new weapons were still around and pinchable, yet scarce; international defections hardly mattered any longer because nobody believed anything wholeheartedly enough to make a betrayal rate as much. What was a security services boy, or girl, to do?
Well, today, instead of secrets there were crimes. Greed, theft and the attendant violence and killings continued as ever in the world, or better than ever. And this was the point, wasn’t it: some former spies found their skills could be converted to new uses, now that in these fine pre-millennium days such skills were unwanted for espionage? Here and there, in this country and overseas, such underemployed operators had turned their schooled, risk-taking minds to brilliant international embezzlement, consummate fraud, indomitable trade in drugs, titanic steals, epic corruption. Abelard’s current job was to stop such abuses, or as many as he could, when they were attempted by one-time colleagues, and bring those colleagues back for settlement. He had become a crime and punishment man, no longer an unseen guardian of the nation’s soul, entrails and destiny.
Tonight, here, near the handsome old railway hotel, he was seeking the girlfriend of a colleague who might have turned law breaker in one of those profitable ways, and possibly not just one of those profitable ways. This colleague had, in fact, been more than a colleague. Julian Theobald Bowling and Abelard used to be friends: not exactly close friends, but definitely pally, as pally as people ever got in their kind of work. Now, Abelard did not even know where Julian was, not town, not country, not continent. Abelard ought to know where Julian was, and ought to be able to nail him and bear him home. The new job said so. This girl might give a pointer. Of course, she could give pointers to others, also, and might have already done that. Abelard did not know a great deal but he did know Julian had apparently cornered a fine stack of illegal funds lately, perhaps by smart illegal deals, perhaps by hi-jacking cash profits meant not just for him but for sharing between him and his new associates. Abelard considered this later possibility the more likely. Julian’s views on loyalty had always been cloudy. A lot of other people might be looking for him, none much interested in righteousness, as Abelard was, but very interested in the commandeered funds. Julian would be a target, and not just for Abelard. Almost certainly Julian wholesaled drugs, possibly shipped drugs by the ton. If you ripped off lads in that game you were in big and brief peril, brief because you would not be around for it to last. One of Abelard’s objectives was to reach Julian and reach Julian’s girl before rivals in the quest did. He could not count on this. The missions had two sides. One was to catch Julian and bring him back to judgement. The other was to save him. On the whole, Abelard considered the second more important, but it was a near thing. Hard to give Julian much sympathy.
Of course, Abelard would admit that spying and policing had overlaps. Whichever it was tonight, though – espionage or flicery – at his pampered and elegant rank he should be above this peasant task. And so, yes, he felt pissed off and misused. But also nervy. In his doorway, he wondered again whether any of the loitering cars were police. If so, they were almost colleagues now, weren’t they? Maybe, but not colleagues who could be told what you were about because you were not really one of them; and not colleagues who would feel obliged to offer protection if things went bad, also because you were not really one of them.
Abelard missed the old job. It had owned a grave and slippery grandeur. In those days, even the method of recruitment was a glamorous mystery, implying an élite, a club, and a club that was fussy and autocratic about whom it admitted. You did not apply to join. You were approached and asked very privately whether you might be interested in a certain sort of work. You could not apply because posts were never advertised. Abelard had been approached while still an undergraduate. People recommended you and you did not know who they were or how they had noticed you or what they had noticed. Abelard supposed he had been named by someone on the university staff charged to spot likelies. It was flattering, and sinister and frightening. You felt part of a shady but socially very OK tradition: Graham Greene was in Intelligence, and Ian Fleming. Even the traitors – when treachery mattered – even those three or four or five had been at good schools and Oxbridge.
As Abelard understood it, none of these hidden, unique, class criteria applied when joining the police – though promotion there might depend on equally unchartable qualities. Lately, then, Abelard had begun to feel the old job was sinking. He knew there would not be much sympathy for him and his colleagues. They had become less because they were needed less, and they were needed less because things overall had grown better. In any case, if you lived in Britain, decline had been the national mood since the death of Victoria and was especially potent now among the thoughtful, as an antidote to imminent millennium turdery. You’re on the slide? So? Hold my hand and we’ll all go together.
Anyway, here he stood tonight, watchful, tense, bloody minded. The flat was above a restaurant which would soon close. Two waiters stood at the back sharing out tips. Every light in the flat seemed on, with all the curtains drawn back. But, in the three hours he had watched, nobody moved across the windows. Time to get closer. A side door was part open to the street and he saw a corridor with stairs at the end probably leading up to the flat. Half way along the corridor was a door to the restaurant kitchen. He picked his way in the near dark through food smells, cat smells and sacks of peelings and tins. Decline, decline. One of the waiters appeared from the doorway and asked what Abelard wanted. If he had really been the police he could have said so and that would have been enough of an answer. Instead, he pointed up the stairs to a mauve door: ‘Miss Francis – is she in?’
‘Sometimes she not here,’ the waiter replied.
‘To keep out burglars.’
‘I’m concerned about her,’ Abelard said.
‘Oh, concerned. You know her, you?’
Even though Barbara Francis was not all white herself, the waiter meant, I didn’t think she had blacks as friends, or clients. On intonations Abelard reckoned himself as sensitive as a drama coach. He had more than most drama coaches to be sensitive about. Through the restaurant window he saw the old Rover was still there. Possibly a couple of the faces inside had shifted to look towards the restaurant now: substantial faces and, no, probably not balletomanes’ faces. Were these folk here to see Miss Francis? Had they already seen Miss Francis and were waiting to discover who else wanted to see her? They hadn’t found what they had come for and needed a new lead? Did they think Abelard was it? He said : ‘I must talk to Miss Francis.’
‘Robert in the kitchen has a key,’ the waiter replied, ‘to look after her plants and a brown animal in a cage, not a rat but—’
‘Hamster. Could you get the key?’
‘I must go home to sleep,’ the waiter replied. ‘And would it be right, sir, for me to take someone I don’t know into her flat?’ Abelard pulled out a five, but this jerk’s scruples went deep and eventually it took ten. A basic in that fine early training had been the methodology and scale of bribes: giving, not getting in those days. Were police detectives coached in this sly art? Did they have the same sort of budget and reimbursement procedures? The waiter returned to the kitchen, came back with the key, then led upstairs. Handling the door’s big lion-head knocker he giggled: ‘Here the brave king of the jungle. Inside, the little brown rat.’ He opened the door and stood aside. Abelard paused, surveying what he could see. The things were cheap but tidy. Nothing said violence. He went in. Progress. He ought to feel pleased. Yes, he ought to.
‘Anything look different?’ Abelard asked.
‘Different?’ The waiter crouched over the hamster’s cage, which seemed empty.
‘Does she have many visitors?’
The waiter seemed obsessed by the cage. Abelard did not like obsessions, others’ obsessions, especially when they were aside from the main business, or appeared to be. ‘A moment,’ the waiter hissed. The cage was circular, with a separate smaller compartment on top as sleeping quarters, like two spacecraft joined. The waiter drew his finger softly across the bars a couple of times. He looked strained, as though this creature had become a kind of omen, and if it were not here, or if it were dead, everything must be wrong. Or was that how Abelard felt? Good Christ, where had that dozy idea sprung from? Just the same, his nerves sang.
The waiter grinned suddenly. In one smooth movement the hamster glided down a plastic chute from the bedroom, stood up on the sawdust with its paws against the bars and pushed a busy muzzle through, sniffing ardently. It was a mixture of browns – dark on top, a lighter waistcoat across the belly: plump, a little rat-like, yes, but dumb looking. Abelard left the two of them and went swiftly through the whole flat, searching for anything that might show him the next step, trying to keep away from windows. Opening a couple of drawers in a bureau, he found a few old records and some empty chewing gum wrappers. A colour picture of Barbara Francis, known also as Melanie and Roxana, stood framed in silver coloured metal on a radiator shelf. The brightness of the frame seemed a bit cruel now. Oh, bollocks, Abelard, ditch the mush. The photograph showed her in fancy dress as an astronaut, beaming with fun, two rows of very bright and exceptionally small teeth on display.
From the other room, where he had left the waiter, there suddenly came a high, angry, unbroken whistling. Abelard hurried back. The waiter had gone and the hamster was clinging suspended on the bars, making this shrill, meaningful din. Someone bright and very impatient might be reincarnated there, fed up with the cage, condominium or not. Oh, bollocks, Abelard, ditch the cheapo mysticism. He bent to look more closely for anything non-hamster in the eyes and while crouched heard a footstep behind, maybe more than one.
He did not have time to turn and see. Something metal and unfragile crashed against the side of his head. As he went down the pet was still at it, like an intemperate kettle.
Consciousness came back at a gallop and as soon as he opened his eyes he knew he was in the locked boot of a moving car, big enough to be a Rover. Blood had run down his face and dried on his lips, sticking them together. His nose seemed blocked – perhaps more blood. His chest was heaving for lack of air and he broke his lips apart and desperately sucked at what was on offer in this fume-filled box. Exactly how old was the crate? Did it leak poisons?
Other terrors queued, like, if he did not die here, now, how long would he live when they stopped? He was being freighted somewhere – to be finished and dumped? When they opened the lid oxygen would enter, but was he going to get time to savour it? Or they might never lift the lid at all. They could fire the car or drown it and him in a dock. Christ, yes, they would need to get rid of the vehicle. His mother and all the training had stressed that when you went into the car of an unfriendly you were very likely a deado. And all this for asking questions about Barbara Francis, who might have shown him a step forward. There still were steps forward, even in an age of decline, decline.
They were making some speed. It was motorway driving. He had no idea how long he had lain unconscious. They could be anywhere now. He was on his back. Reaching up he pushed at the boot lid with both hands and when it did not yield used his feet as well and shoved with them and shoved again. It still did not budge and sweat flooded him. Divers in trouble sometimes panicked and struggled and ate up their air. Briefly, he tried to lie still, but the procession of dreads would not let him. Were these the reactions of an inspirationally chosen and ruthlessly instructed secret officer of the Crown? Fuck that. This time he turned on to his hands and knees, then pushed up with his arched back, a desperate, prolonged pressure, slackening when the car swayed and broke his balance, and when the pain of breathlessness grew too much. As soon as he strengthened again he resumed.
He thought he felt something begin to give – a tiny movement as if a lock bar had bent a fraction and could be bent more next time. Then, as he was getting himself together for another last shove, the car’s speed began to fall rapidly and for a moment he paused, still arched and gasping, terrified he had left it too late. The vehicle stopped. He heard voices and doors slamming. Footsteps came to the rear of the car and he realised that if they pulled up the lid to take him out now he had no chance of defending himself, head and hands and feet all pointing the wrong way and exhaustion dragging at him. Shouldn’t there be tools here, maybe a tyre lever? Why hadn’t he felt about, tried to arm himself? But he just hung there now, bent up, petrified, fearful of making any sound that might signal he was conscious. Perhaps they were not ready to deal with him yet. He heard other vehicles nearby, quite a number, and there were voices, including what seemed to be children. Wherever this was it might be too crowded for them to show what they had in the boot.
The lid stayed down. Slowly his mind began to function fairly fluently again. Possibly they had turned into a motorway services station, and some of them had gone for a leak and a coffee. The footsteps must be those of one man left on guard. Occasionally now he heard whoever it was take a few paces, as if to ease the boredom.
Abelard had to break out while the car was parked here. The odds might never be as good again. If he had read things right, it would be one-to-one and he should have surprise on his side. For a moment he relaxed his body. He had to rebuild his breath and strength. With one hand he explored the side wall of the boot in case something as suitable as a cosh were strapped there. But perhaps they had already helped themselves. What had hit him as he tried to commune with the hamster could have been some meaty item from a tool kit. He found nothing now. He thrust upwards with his back against the lid again and for another second felt that all his worry about a weapon did not rate because the boot would stay shut until they chose to open it, and there would be no surprise and no fight and no hope. Metal struts on the underside of the lid cut into his back and he could not be sure whether the moisture he felt running across him was sweat or blood. But he kept the pressure on and struggled to make it more.
There was another small, sharp sound, like metal yielding and the lid groaned and flew back. No longer jammed, Abelard jack-knifed up and then collapsed sprawling. He half dazed himself as his temple hit the spare-wheel hub. He heard a man swear and step towards the car and, as he forced himself back to full consciousness, saw a hand reach up to the boot lid, about to bang it down again.
Abelard struck out, a sweeping, upward blow at the man’s arm, attempting to knock it away and stop him. At the same time he yelled for help and began to get to his feet in the boot, so everybody could see. Once in a while people would ditch their indifference or fear and lend a hand. He had to try. I’m a soldier of the Queen, for God’s sake! A thought only, not a cry.
The guard had lost his grip on the lid after Abelard’s blow and now, like an idiot, was reaching up again to pull it down. He left himself beautifully open, his body and neck stretched and tensed and inviting. With his spare hand he groped for something in his jacket pocket and Abelard did not wait to find out what. Half upright now he chopped fiercely at this extended neck – a cultivated, precise blow, much practised on dummies; possibly a non-police blow. He watched all cohesion abruptly leave the man’s frame so that the arm which had been reaching up tumbled back, brushing against Abelard’s face. The guard’s legs folded. As he went down his chin hit the car’s bumper and he hung there for a moment like someone on the execution block, then eddied to the ground. He would be about twenty-eight, not big but powerful looking and in a good suit and silk tie, most likely a purchased, heavy-duty lad.
A couple of middle-aged women had watched as they stood by their Nova and now one of them bellowed at Abelard as he jumped from the boot: ‘I say, who are you?’
‘Jack-in-the-box.’ Yes, Abelard was that. Despite the changes, he had lately sprung high in the newly shaped and newly toned security services. As they had shrunk, they were also required by law to become increasingly open and competitive and subject to scrutiny. More of that self-protective secrecy and class clannishness had been loosened. Admission of a few people like Abelard had not been deemed enough. Democracy was getting a run. The Chiefs’ names were actually published now, and their pictures appeared on television and in the Press. Even political correctness had edged in to departments, and that old public school/Oxbridge dominance was also crumbling. It had seemed to weaken a little with Abelard’s recruitment all those years ago: he was neither public school nor Oxbridge. In a way, that had made his invitation even more flattering and mysterious. He used to wonder what they saw in him. The wondering did not last long. He discovered that even in those days the clever folk who ran things realised that their image might go against them eventually, or sooner. They had decided they needed a prole or two, and even a black or two. Abelard had been twice qualified. He was a double gesture, and had been meant to remain at not much more than a gesture. But recently the attempts at some sort of further egalitarianism had brought Abelard’s accelerated rise to somewhere above middle management, oh, yes, definitely above. A Labour government helped, even a Labour government led by a public school, Oxbridge laddy. Abelard adored positive discrimination and if he’d had a cat he would have called him after it. Not even positive discrimination could keep him entirely out of rough sequences like this one, though, sod it.
Now, he saw he had been right and they were in the car park of a services station, though not one he recognised. He had been right, too, about the car: this was the Rover spotted outside the restaurant. For a second he stared towards the station buildings, in case the others from the car were on their way back. He saw only the customary crowd for these nowhere places, the men in Littlewood’s cardigans and aglow with mileage pride. Abelard bent down and went through the pockets of the guardian. He was still breathing, though with occasional long pauses. Next of kin would have worried, and so did the two women. ‘Stop it, oh, stop it!’ one of them yelled. She hurried to their car and leaned on the horn to call help. Both began screaming. They would not necessarily be racist but, if a black was hitting a white, British whites would side with the white, unless the black were Joe Louis and the white Max Schmeling, in 1938.
Abelard kept working. He found keys in one pocket and a short barrelled FN .38 revolver in another. There was a bit of money and nothing else. These boys knew who they were and carried no identification. The din from the women must have worked and three men rushed out from the building, all of them youngish and fit looking, the last in a homburg hat. One of his mother’s other chief observations about the world to Abelard as a child was, Never trust a man in a homburg. He pulled the boot lid down, praying it would stick. It did. Then he jumped into the Rover, praying again, this time that one of the keys would fit. One did. As the three sprinted towards him he reversed the Rover, turned and, waving to the two women, made for the motorway, the elderly engine sounding loud but bonny and ready for almost anything. They weren’t bad old wagons, thinking about it from the driving seat, not the boot. He joined the motorway.
In a couple of miles he picked up signs and found he was on the M1 going north, not far from Luton. He took the first exit and doubled back towards London. He thought he smelled dawn and this pleased him. In a little while he must pull off and choose a country corner where he could search the car. Daylight would help. After another fifteen minutes he took an exit, found a country lane and pulled in at the gate of a field. By now there was enough pale, grey light. At once he began sifting through the thick litter of cigarette packets, old maps, wrappers and tattered newspapers. It was all very anonymous and he might have been digging through the muck in his own car, except for the smoking mementoes. Finding nothing around the front seats or in the glove compartment, he moved into the rear. Again it struck him that these were trained people: men who discarded all kinds of rubbish, but nothing that told a tale.
Then, in a corner of the back seat, he discovered a Marks and Spencer carrier bag which he at first thought empty. Feeling around inside, he located what seemed to be a large postcard. When he brought it out, though, he was appalled to find a photograph of himself. The shock dazed Abelard. It was a wedding picture, more than twenty years old now, but still a passable likeness, give or take a top hat. He had become a bit heavier and his eyes were less cheery and amiable today. All the same, anyone could have recognised him from the snap. Anita beamed on his arm as if she might truly mean to stay. He turned the photograph over and read what was written in pencil on the other side:
Simon Abelard, age 44, Senior Principal (Personnel), HMISS. Heads search for Julian Bowling, and currently operates clandestinely from offices registered as Anstey Financial Consultants, 318 High Holborn, London, not MoD.
Married 1978, Anita Selby Sawyer. Divorced April 1984. No children.
Private address: 15A The Hawthorns, London NW11.
Mixed race. Welsh mother (lives with him). West Indian father (dead). Born, Loudoun Square, Docks, Cardiff, 1956. Educated Manchester University (Upper second, science, 1977). Post grad. work, Columbia USA. Recruited originally as Whitehall token black.
Find and bring. May have leads to Bowling. Approach with care. To be kept in adequate state for questioning.
The writing was very small and very neat – female? – and the information very accurate. Yes, token black sounded spot on, spot on for then: ‘Not just black but Cardiff Tiger Bay working class,’ the chiefs could chortle, when citing Abelard: to rebut the unrebuttable charge that the Outfit was a costly, silver spoon, self-perpetuating cabal.
For a moment, Abelard recalled one of his earlier jobs. Properly, that religious rural trip should have been handled by Special Branch, but the call came for Abelard. So, even then the blur between security work and police work had started. It was in apartheid days and he had been ordered to a huge interdenominational rally on a show ground in mid Wales to make sure the visiting South African cleric, Desmond Tutu, was not done on British soil. There had been a half hint that a talented Johannesburg cordite team might smuggle themselves near and take out the then bishop, subsequently arch-. The Brits, not the Boers, would thus catch the blame.
As a witty race gesture, Abelard, very much the solitary black in the Outfit, had been ordered to get his wide, trained frame between Desmond and fusillades. Verdun Cadwallader ran these matters then and now – another to dodge the pruning – and it was the sort of malign man-management touch he adored. Of course, no SA execution squad turned up and no bullets. Once or twice that day Abelard’s eyes met Tutu’s and he had seen a mixture of amusement and mystification in the bishop’s. Perhaps it shook him that a man like Abelard could make it into one of Britain’s passionately exclusive Intelligence services. Perhaps it shook him that a non-white should want it. In a packed exhibition hall, Tutu was given a reception like the Beatles in their pomp and made a joke, probably standard. Aglow in his purple, grey curly hair gleaming under the platform lights, he had said: ‘One thing about being black: nobody can see you’re blushing.’
There had been moments under Tutu’s scrutiny when Abelard had felt like blushing himself for having landed in this career. But he had landed in it, and landed in it brilliantly early. A while after the Tutu duty, events had started to make Abelard promotable. He climbed. For instance, he could have been directing this search for J Bowling from his decently furnished, not unspacious, subject-to-audit office.
Why the hell wasn’t he?
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About Bill James
Also by Bill James (published by The Do-Not Press)