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LONDON, LATE FALL OF 1936
MR. VANE AND MAJOR HOLLY-BROWNING FOUND A PARKING space on Woburn Place at Russell Square, just across from the Russell Hotel. Mr. Vane, who drove the Morris with a delicacy that was almost fussiness, pulled into the gap with some grunting and huffing. He was not a physically graceful man or a strong one, and mechanical tasks came to him with some difficulty. He removed the ignition key and placed it in his vest pocket. Neither man made a move to leave the auto. They simply sat in the little car, two drab men of the commercial class, perhaps, travelers, little clerks, barristers’ assistants.
It was a bright blue morning in Bloomsbury, a fabulous morning. In the elms of the square, whose dense leaves had begun to turn russet with the coming of colder weather, squirrels chattered and scrambled; squads of ugly, bumbling old pigeons gathered on the lawn. Some even perched upon the earl of Bedford’s copper shoulders at the corner of the park. The chrysanthemums in the beds alongside the walks had not yet perished, though they would within the fortnight.
“He’s late, of course,” said Vane, examining his pocket watch.
“Give him time, Vane,” said Major Holly-Browning. “This is a big day in his life, and the chap’s sure to be nervous. This chap in particular.”
Major Holly-Browning was in his fifties, ten years older than Mr. Vane, and wore a vague mustache, a voluminous mackintosh despite the clear skies, and a bowler. On closer examination, he didn’t look commercial at all but rather military. He had the look of a passed-over officer, with a grayness to the skin, a certain bleakness to the eyes, and a certain formality to his carriage. He looked like the man who hadn’t quite managed the proper friends in the regiment and was therefore doomed to a succession of grim assignments in the outposts of the Empire, far from the parades, the swirling social life, the intrigues of home duty.
In fact, the major was head of Section V, MI-6, that is, the counterespionage section of the Secret Intelligence Service; he was, in the lexicon of the trade, V (a); Mr. Vane, his number two, was V (b). There was no V (c); they were the entire division. The major took a deep breath inside the little car. One of his headaches was starting up. He touched his temple.
“Exhausted, Vane. Haven’t slept in weeks.”
“You must go home more often, sir. You can’t expect to remain in the proper health living as you do, those long nights in the office.”
The major sighed. Vane could be an awful prig.
“I suppose you are right, Vane.”
“He is now seven minutes late.”
“He will be here. The bait is far too tempting for him not to swallow.”
They sat again in silence.
“Sir! There he is.”
“Don’t stare, Vane.”
The major waited calmly and at long last the object of his well-controlled curiosity appeared. The fellow’d gotten off at the Russell Square tube station, as they’d expected, and come up Bernard Street. He waited patiently for the walk signal, then crossed to their side of the street and ambled by a few feet beyond them: it was the tall, diffident figure of a Mr. Robert Florry.
“The great Julian’s ex-chum. Not an impressive man, is he?” observed the major, who for all his efforts in the matter had not before this second laid eyes upon the man.
“Nobody has ever been greatly impressed with Mr. Florry,” said Mr. Vane, the Florry expert. “Whatever can such a Robin Goodfellow of Society as the great Julian Raines have seen in him?”
“He only saw it for a bit,” said the major, knowing a little something of the broken-off schoolboy friendship, the cometlike ascension of one of the partners and the disappearance into ignominy of the other.
Florry was turned out, after the fashion of the day, to the maximum limits of his wardrobe, but on his severely limited budget he could only manage to appear a notch beyond the shabby. The coat was almost fifteen years old, a tweed thing that was as lumpy as it was frayed, and flecked with a dozen tawny colors. The rest of Florry’s attire was in perfect accordance with the coat: floppy wool trousers, a gaudy Fair Isle sweater, and a bumpkin’s well-beaten walking shoes. He had on his officer’s khaki service tie and his shirt was of dark blue, worn shiny and limp from countless washings.
“I must confess I’d expected someone with a bit more bearing. The fellow was an officer, wasn’t he?” said the major.
“Of sorts,” said Vane. “More a copper, actually.”
Florry continued to navigate the sidewalk as he headed toward his destination, which lay on the far side of the square, across still another street. Yet even having cleared this, a final obstacle stood in his way. The early edition of the afternoon Mail had just come out and a news board hawked the leader in a crude child’s scrawl.
MADRID BOMBED, SURROUNDED
HOW LONG CAN REDS LAST?
This information brought the young man to a sudden halt. He stared at it gravely for some time.
“Why on earth did that have to be there?” wondered Mr. Vane.
Florry finally pulled himself away from the announcement and made his way another few yards down the street, where he assaulted the marble steps of a red-brick house at Number 56 Bedford, at Russell Square.
Major Holly-Browning sat back but could not relax. A cold sore inside his lip began to throb and his headache had not abated at all. He believed himself, and not without some evidence, to be quietly disintegrating. He knew now the most difficult part of the day was upon him, the awful waiting while certain steps were taken to bring upon him that most awkward and tender moment of the operation. Florry would be wooed—delicately if possible, brutally if necessary—but at all costs successfully. The major, having partaken in so many similar seductions over the years, had no illusions about the process of recruitment. Florry must be taken and owned and directed. It was more important than Florry himself.
“I say, Vane, can you stay here and keep watch?” the major suddenly said. “I imagine it will still be a bit. I must move. The old leg, it’s beginning to smart up, eh?”
“Of course, sir,” Vane replied.
The major opened the door, pulled himself onto the curb, and closed the door behind him, absorbing great drafts of fresh air in the process. The car had seemed a prison; sometimes, confined, he had the sudden screaming urge come over him to stretch and breathe and feel the cool air in his nose and the soft grass underneath his feet. It was a feeling that could come hurtling over him without warning, until he could no longer stand it. It had begun in Lubyanka, with Levitsky.
The major found his way to a bench near the gigantic old tree that stood at the center of the park. He sat down, trying to calm himself. Yet what returned to him was not calm but memory. Perhaps it was the drama of recruitment being played out at that moment not a hundred yards off in the office of The Spectator, or perhaps it was the sure and steady approach of a moment when he, Holly-Browning, must himself act, the pregnant moment of equipoise, when Florry, perched delicately between worlds and lives, must be nudged into the right one. Or perhaps it was simply time again to remember, for the memory had returned as regularly as a train, twice a week, every week since 1922.
For in that year, he himself had been the object of just such a ritual as was now transpiring so close at hand. His impersonation of one Golitsyn, the furrier’s son and Bolshevik officer of the cavalry, had been penetrated by a clever Cheka agent. The major, who had fought Zulus and wogs before the ’14-’18 show, who’d gone over the top twice in suicidal assaults during it, and who’d fought in seven battles of the civil war in Russia under his fictitious identity, had never until that moment been truly frightened. But Levitsky had sliced through him as a sharp knife goes into a plump goose’s breast.
He could not but think of his own session in the cell. The same shame flooded over him. It came to sit on his chest like an ingot, suffocating him.
Levitsky, he thought, you were so shrewd.
It was Vane, out of the car.
The major looked across the green park and could see the upper shade of Number 56, the arched window above the entrance: the shade had been raised.
Vane approached, looking flushed.
“He’s bitten. He has taken the hook.”
“He has indeed,” said the major. “And now it’s time to land him.”