Knaves over queens, p.18
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.18

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  What is he looking for in the shape of the man’s back? What does he want from this whole business? Advancement? Yes, obviously. But under that, yes, let’s lift up that stone and have a butcher’s, shall we? Under that is a need for recognition. For a pat on the back. For sir to say he’s been a good boy. Charlie knows that. He knows himself. It doesn’t make what he’s doing wrong, but it does make it … more frightening. In a world of wrongs being done, he’s the one with worries pinging back and forth somewhere deep inside him about how what he’s doing is hubris. Or is that just class again, that he’s worried that by flying too high, he’s also stepping out of line?

  Faulkner makes a couple of turns, but not like someone trying to lose a tail, more like someone who’s memorized a map. Charlie sees him hesitate at one of them, put a finger in the air, and then turn to the right. It’s not hard to find a small square of green in Kensington, and eventually he does. He then hangs about awkwardly, loitering by a tree in the pool of light under a lamp, with flats in the square all around looking down on him. He really hasn’t done that course. It’s easy for Charlie to find a dark corner and watch. It occurs to him that it’d be really dreary if all this turned out to be about what English civilization has been about since it was invented: posh boys bumming each other. Would he be able to recognize that sort of assignation from this distance? Yeah, probably.

  It’s only ten minutes before someone turns up. This one is a lot more professional, at first glance. He has, at the very least, thought about this. But no, it looks as if that’s all he’s done. He loops around the square, carrying shopping, for all the world as if he’s going to stop at one of these houses and go in, but Charlie just has a feeling about him, a feeling he probably wouldn’t have if this bloke was genuine, and just as well, because the bag man looks in on Charlie’s corner before completing his loop … and now Charlie is crouched behind some trees so he doesn’t get to see that bit … and when he looks again, the man has approached Faulkner, and, no, he doesn’t give him the bags or take anything from them or get given anything to put in them, that was just for the cover, so this isn’t a drop off, they’re here to talk. The conversation is brief, and looks angry. Faulkner is demanding something from the bag man, who is … getting emotional himself. These two don’t look like cogs in the machine, they look like … comrades? Maybe. Maybe with a capital C.

  Except that Faulkner has a certain disdain for Bag Man. He’s being abrupt, trying to give orders, and Bag Man doesn’t like it. Now Bag Man isn’t looking so professional either. This level of intensity, in the street … this is showy. This doesn’t fit with anything these two could be. The Soviets don’t berate their agents in public. You’re their hero of the Revolution until suddenly you find yourself on the front end of a speeding car. Slightly easier to believe in these two as student sympathizers, making up their own rules, hungry for the cause, arguing all the time, seeking seniority. But these are two grown men. And no, they do not quite seem to be on the same side.

  And now Bag Man is giving Faulkner something. Reluctantly, as if, okay, he supposes he can have it. Charlie wishes he’d prepared for this, had brought his opera glasses, which he’s used three times for cricket, several times in the field, and never for opera. It’s small, whatever it is, slipped into that mac pocket. An envelope? Yeah. Then Bag Man is off. Charlie takes a moment to watch him go, is fairly certain he’d recognize that gait, that shoulder slope, that slick of thinning hair.

  But why settle for fairly? It’s not as if he’s on a mission here. It’s not as if Bag Man recognizing him later would mean anything.

  Charlie doesn’t care if Faulkner sees him emerge from cover, which is unlikely anyway, given how he’ll have ruined his night vision in that lamplight. He runs a few steps, gets to the edge of the square, sees Bag Man still marching off, in the distance. Now this man might well be the kind to head for the bus stop.

  Charlie makes his gait faster, catches up, then deliberately stumbles, falls into the man, sending them both sprawling.

  Bag Man leaps up as if he might be about to die. He’s staring at Charlie with an intensity that really helps with imprinting every detail of his features onto Charlie’s retinas, click-click-click.

  And Charlie is pretty sure, having seen him close up, what sort of accent he’s going to need here to be most reassuring. ‘Mate …’ he slurs, letting the beer have its say, ‘give us a hand, eh?’ He reaches out a wobbly hand. Bless him, the man hesitates only for a moment and takes it, helps him to his feet. Given that he’s still shaken up, he actually takes a second to make sure Charlie’s okay. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, ’bliged,’ he says.

  ‘You’re all right to get to the bus or the Tube?’

  Charlie feels a bit rotten now. ‘I’m fine. You’re a good bloke. Cheers.’

  With a little nod, the man is on his way.

  Charlie wanders slowly after him, keeping up the part, lets him get away. Then he reaches his own bus stop, sits down in the shelter, finds his notepad and makes a quick first sketch. But there’s no way he’s going to forget that face. Some faces have Britain in them. You could display them like archaeologists display tree rings to indicate changes in climate, but in the case of the faces it’s the political climate. There’s a game he played in training, in which he was asked to match faces drawn on cards with those secretly drawn by an opponent, only they weren’t able to use physical descriptions. ‘Open University lecturer’, ‘confirmed bachelor’, ‘nudist’, that sort of thing. Charlie was very good at it. Bag Man feels like a victim of whatever’s churning underneath the body politic at the moment, not the cause of it. He might well be a comrade – that would have been one of the words out of Charlie’s mouth during the face game – but he wasn’t one of those filthy Soviet apparatchiks, and he wasn’t a naive believer: he was someone who … who wanted something better.

  Now there is a dangerous thought, Charlie-boy.

  Charlie slips the finished drawing into his pocket. He catches his late bus home, collapses into bed and sleeps so hard that the alarm going off feels like seconds later.

  That morning is another hungover slog through the usual reports of embassy comings and goings, all of which now seem as mundane as spuds. Charlie’s got a taste of the action, the action that nobody in real life quite has, and it’s making him itch.

  At first tea break, he pops down a flight in the clanking lift to see Maudie in Ops. Maudie is the girl who’s had pictures in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. Charlie got a look at them once, and couldn’t get his head round what went where. But for Box, she’s strictly representational, though today he notes she is wearing a maxi dress in a design that swings more towards her hobby than her employment. He bets there’s a big floppy hat somewhere, glances towards the coat peg and there it is. ‘How can I help you?’ she says, in mascara which says to Charlie that her bosses down here are aware of her worth and don’t mention dress codes too much.

  ‘Could you give me a quick sketch?’

  ‘What’s the operation line?’ She’s wanting a name to write on the piece of paper poised before her.

  ‘Nothing like that. Just for fun. This is a man I met in a dream. I was thinking of writing a novel about him.’

  She gives him an ‘oh, come on’ look.

  ‘Seriously. I’ve got a book in me. I can feel the edges when I sit down.’

  Which gets him a full-throated chuckle despite herself. ‘I’m on my break.’

  ‘So am I, but I’ve got five minutes.’

  So she condescends to help, and he quickly describes Bag Man. He doesn’t show her the sketch he made. He wants to let her skills express themselves to their fullest. She sketches swiftly, asks him for opinions on each part, makes notes beside those parts, crosses out, throws the paper away, starts again. Charlie has an urge to pick up those discarded papers and pocket them, but that way lies questions. She nails it on version four. Charlie can see no difference between the man looking out at him from the paper and the ma
n he met. Now all he has to do is take this picture back to his own section and do some comparing with the usual suspects.

  Maudie stands up and takes a look at her work from a slight distance. She cocks her head to one side, charmingly. ‘You dream about Ray Boulton?’

  Which makes Charlie realize. What he’d taken to be fellow feeling, or his skills at work, was actually just, in the back of his head, recognizing this bloke. ‘The National Union of Journalists Ray Boulton?’ She taps the side of her head, she was one step ahead there, boy. Or … no, she means she’s worried about what he’s got going on up top. If only she knew. ‘It does look like him, yeah. Too much red cheese before bedtime.’

  ‘I’m starting to wonder if you’re trying a bit too hard to fit in with the public school boys.’ She flaps a limp hand like Larry Grayson.

  ‘If I was,’ says Charlie, taking his sketch and leaving with a jolly wave, ‘I’d pick someone else to find under my bed.’

  In his breaks that day, Charlie reads up on Ray Boulton. Not the most ferocious of union officials, nor the most left wing. Castigated by some of his peers in the TUC for insufficient fervour, in fact. Must be awkward around the revolutionary dinner table, with so many of Ray’s members working for newspapers that would want them all hanged.

  But Ray hasn’t been a working journalist for a long time. So what was he doing meeting Faulkner as if he was an amateur spy? Now, this is where Charlie might hit a bit of a wall, because if he had any authority behind his … whatever this is … he could go and have a word with Boulton, scare him a bit. Just like Sergeant Rock or whatever he calls himself did to him. Yeah, thank you, conscience. All right then, Charlie thinks, how about the opposite to that? And that’s how, right after work, he finds himself in the reception area of Congress House on Great Russell Street, where, the books of the day have told him, Ray Boulton has been in conference with the faithful. He’s about two rungs down from the top flight of the NUJ, from what Charlie can make out from the byzantine organizational diagrams Box have for the unions, but his recent appearances in the media, attempting to be a voice of reconciliation between the PM and the workers, have got him noticed.

  Charlie hangs around the foyer, as a lot of folk are doing, taking care to pop out to admire The Spirit of Brotherhood statue every now and then, to give the impression, unless that receptionist is really paying attention, that he’s a new arrival every time. To help with that, sometimes he’s wearing his coat, sometimes it’s flung casually over his shoulder.

  He’s starting to think sod this for a game of soldiers when, coming out of the lifts, there he is. Charlie happens to be dressed completely differently to the previous night, so he suspects that, if he does this entirely confidently, as if he’s never met Boulton before, the union man might not make the connection. He’s decided to do the only thing he can do, the most basic move in tradecraft. He’s going to insert himself in the middle of the meaning without knowing what the meaning is. It’s like at university, when he very much enjoyed not having read the set text but going to the tutorial about it anyway. He falls in beside the man as he heads for the door, and mutters to him. ‘Got a moment? Faulkner sent me.’

  Boulton stops just outside the building. He takes Charlie a couple of steps away from where his colleagues might hear, but still, he’s not scared or intimidated. His expression says that this is tiresome and a bit puzzling. ‘What does he want now?’

  Charlie drops his accent to the same social level as this East End grammar school boy. ‘He wants more.’

  ‘More? What does that mean?’

  ‘You know what he’s like.’

  ‘Can’t say I do. I’m not going to vote for him for General Secretary, if that’s what he means.’

  Charlie has no idea what that means. He’s never tried poker. The services discourage an interest in gambling. He suspects it might be a bit too attractive. ‘So what do I tell him?’

  ‘Tell him I’m fed up with him playing silly buggers. I was willing to indulge his need for secrecy, because I thought he could be about to tell the British public something they might need to know. But there’s no reason for him to be sending vague and mysterious messages to me.’

  ‘Oh no.’ Charlie is suddenly the embarrassed friend, and has made his accent leap up into the stratosphere where Faulkner’s own speech patterns probably live. ‘I’m terribly sorry. He just told me to come to you and say that. You mustn’t let on. He’d had a couple of stiff ones. What’s he gone and done?’

  ‘Your friend has joined the National Union of Journalists. Yes, shocking and extraordinary, I know, something that must be done in the dead of night. He approached me directly, and, as I said, insisted on such secrecy that I thought he must be about to write some enormous exposé of the upper crust and needed membership to get it into a paper as his own work. So I made sure it was processed quickly and brought it to him myself, in a meeting that was as ridiculous as it was clandestine. He should know, by the way, when the newsletter comes out next month, he’ll be listed as part of the membership on the public record like anyone else. If it’s more secrecy he wants, I can’t give it. And you should tell him this is not something he should feel ashamed of. If his conscience is getting the better of him about speaking out about those around him, that’s between him and his editor.’

  ‘I’ll have a quiet word. My apologies again. I shall make sure this doesn’t become any more ridiculous, and if I may rely on your own discretion—’

  ‘You may. If I can rely on this being an end to all this tomfoolery.’

  ‘Indeed. Many thanks. I’m sorry to have taken up so much of your time.’ And Charlie is off, pleased to have got away without having to invent a name.

  So where does Charlie go from here? He’s sure this all means something, but he has no idea what. So much of his job is about being one of those blind sods who’s feeling out the shape of an elephant, usually while the elephant is about to fuck you. Charlie does not want to end up being fucked by an elephant, especially because he’s on his own with this one.

  That thought has just about resolved itself into action by the time he gets back home and starts to make himself egg and chips for tea. Maybe now is the time for him to arrange a meeting with the DG, put all this on the table, cash in his brownie points and leave it to those who can see more of the elephant.

  Which is when his phone rings. He answers it, and hears the familiar click of a secure line being put in place. Then it’s Barbara, the DG’s secretary. ‘Good evening, Mr Soper. There’s a problem in production, I’m afraid. Could you pop back to the office, please?’

  Charlie uses his free hand to switch the gas off. Those eggs will be wasted. A problem in production means he’s going to have to take a taxi. ‘On my way.’

  This time, Barbara is pointing towards the inner door as soon as he leaves the lift, as if she’d started pointing before the doors opened. Charlie is dead nervous about this. He has only ever been summoned like this once before, one night when it was all hands on deck for an embassy shooting. But this time round he hasn’t seen the great influx he saw that evening, all the grey men heading for the same building, like a herd of bureaucrats migrating. This time he has a terrible feeling it’s just him.

  He enters the DG’s office, and here it’s just him, too. The DG doesn’t do all that pretending to be working on something, keeping him waiting a bit, like they do in the movies. He doesn’t have that much wankery in him. Indeed, his eyes are fixed on Charlie as soon as he closes the door behind him. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘this is delicate.’

  Charlie’s stomach lurches. ‘I have been looking into something, sir. I was about to bring it to you—’

  ‘Let me do the talking, please.’ Oh fuck. ‘You’d better sit down.’ Oh fuck me sideways. Charlie sits. The DG looks like a stern but kindly headmaster, which, honestly, is just about what he’s always been in Charlie’s head. All those books full of posh boys at boarding schools having adventures, you read them even if you’re from C
harlie’s street. Even if you don’t recognize anything in them, they leave their mark. Only he doesn’t have, he suddenly realizes, the native responses of the real posh boys who work here. He’s only ever been used to the kindly part of this relationship. He does not know how to react in the face of the … metaphorical, at least let’s bloody hope so … cane on the backside. Not from someone who’s where the DG is in his head. This, thinks Charlie, is why you should never let yourself trust these posh bastards.

  ‘My previous visitor,’ the DG begins, ‘made a very strong case for taking you off for a stay in the country.’ There’s a country house owned by Box, somewhere down the Thames. It’s where training sessions take place, above Charlie’s pay grade. It’s also, it’s said, where the rough stuff happens. Where, if you’re a British national who’s not willing to reveal who the rest of your network of comrades is … well, the stories say that’s somewhere the rule of law bypasses.

  Charlie now wants to throw up. But come on, mate, look to your skills. Compose yourself. Quickly. What would a traitor say at this point? What’s the opposite? ‘I can see why, sir.’

  ‘Can you really? Walk me through it.’

  Charlie almost bursts out laughing, because he’s so startled that he’s managed to grab a fingerhold on the way down. ‘Well, sir, I’ve been looking into what happened between Captain Faulkner and our hired hand Ruskin in that front room. I’ve been doing it in my own time, without telling the firm. That might look like the sort of thing a very stupid comrade would get up to.’

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