Knaves over queens, p.19
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.19

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

  ‘Why “very stupid”?’

  ‘Because I’ve been doing it pretty much openly.’

  ‘Indeed? I’m told you used a range of covers and Box resources.’

  ‘Not openly to those I was looking into, sir. That would have been foolish. I mean openly as far as Box goes. I told no lies in-house. If asked, I would have shared what I’d learned.’

  ‘But nobody asked you. So you didn’t tell.’

  ‘As I said, I was about to.’

  ‘And on whose authority were you doing this?’

  ‘As I’ve said, sir—’

  ‘That was a bloody rhetorical question!’ Suddenly, the DG is furious in a way Charlie has never seen before. It must have been building up in him, completely beyond even Charlie’s notice, which is shocking in itself. He supposes he deserves it. He was scrabbling around for excuses, like a child. He keeps his silence now.

  The DG gets up, paces back and forth, sits down again, once more in control of himself. He has now shown Charlie the context he is within. ‘Why did you do this?’

  Charlie pauses a moment, acknowledging that he now has to decide whether or not this is a rhetorical question too. The real answer is, you ancient arsehole, I did it to please you. Because I have something inside that is cringing now, and was cringing before, and took action to prevent cringing in future. I hate myself for that as much as I hate you right now, and yet I am still cringing. He wants to say, like a caught schoolboy, Dunno, sir. He will not do that, at least. ‘I suppose I was … hoping to demonstrate initiative, sir.’

  The DG is silent for a long time. Charlie is pretty sure that if he was going to be sent off to the opposite of a health farm, this interview would have been conducted there, in a room with a soil floor. But … his insides are not so sure. ‘That is not what you have demonstrated,’ he says, finally. ‘You are to cease all such investigations immediately. You are to burn any notes you have made. Your pay grade will be reviewed. Dismissed.’

  Is that it? Charlie stays seated. He wants to say I deserve answers. He wants to protest undying fealty to the man in front of him as if he’s being dragged off by the guards in a banana republic. He isn’t bothering to try to hide whatever emotions are now dangerously close to the surface.

  The DG has met his gaze. There is nothing in his expression to suggest boys will be boys, or that this little rebellion was in any way secretly approved by his authority. ‘Do you want to be hurt?’ he says.

  Charlie silently gets to his feet and walks to the door, unsure of where his feet are. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t look at Barbara on the way out.

  So that’s how our boy ends up at the Queen’s Tap, which is a Box pub, because he wants to have a few, and he doesn’t mind who sees it. Indeed, he’s quite keen on them seeing it. If his manner of advancement has been cut off, he thinks, he might as well do it in style. But tonight there are only a few in, and of his own only Tom Fotherington. Tom’s so public school that he even still wears the tie, but he’s a decent sort, so Charlie plonks himself down next to him. He knows better than to share anything about his conversation with the DG, or about his career prospects, because he didn’t come here seeking actual career suicide … probably. And Tom might even be here to … no, of course not. Charlie’s not that important. He really bloody hopes.

  ‘So …’ he begins, over his second pint, still in two, three, four minds about what he feels about bloody anything. ‘How was your day?’

  ‘Utter panic. Right as we were about to go out of the door. They kept my shift on an extra hour, called the next shift in early.’

  Charlie pricks his ears up. He just missed that. The shift on each department keeps different hours. The margin is meant to allow quicker briefing when something major’s going on. Tom’s in supplies. ‘What’s the flap?’

  ‘Something big is impending. No idea what. I should think we’ll see it on the Nine O’Clock News. It feels like when the Provos have an active service unit in town.’

  ‘You think it’s a bomb?’

  ‘Or an assassination. Quiet as the grave in the Irish section, mind you. So it’s not the boyos this time. Something must have come in from an informant, but that’s the odd thing …’


  ‘Nobody with informants in the field seems to be joining in with the buzz. It’s as if information pertaining has suddenly appeared from …’ Tom gestures skywards.

  ‘From the DG?’

  ‘Which means he’s heard it from someone in Whitehall, which is not the way this is supposed to work. We’re meant to be looking out for them. Heads will roll, I should think, after we’ve rushed around, beating all the bushes they’ve pointed at.’

  ‘Which bushes?’ Charlie wishes all interrogations were as easy as the ones between colleagues in the pub. But he has a horrible feeling about this, that he might not actually be as far away from the heart of things now as he thought he was.

  ‘Well, all the military service records were out and being gone through. The union busters were in and out as well, all getting their pockets shaken out, one after the other.’ Charlie hates it that that’s automatically what the officers running operations inside British trade unions get called. But right now his head is suddenly busy with connections. And one big central worry. Did the DG follow all his investigations before he got called in and carpeted? Was the old man aware that Charlie has been meddling with both a military officer, of whom the DG is certainly aware, and a union official, of whom he may well not be? ‘And,’ Tom continues, ‘the weird squad were in as well. The Silver Helix, diplomatic relations established, red carpet extended, though they were virtually marched from the doorway to the DG, not allowed to look left or right. Not that their sort need to gut our files like we’re chicken in a basket.’

  And the boss knave himself. So all the aspects Charlie had discovered were in place. But if this was all about Charlie, if the DG had known he’d stumbled onto something big, or been unwittingly fooling around with some carefully arranged plan, then he wouldn’t have been let loose like this. He’d at the very least have been regarded as an asset, and thus kept in a corridor somewhere, doing a crossword. What his current freedom says to Charlie is that the DG does not in fact know everything he’s found out. He has been seen approaching the edges of some sensitive issue, not pirouetting into the middle of it.

  Which gives our boy a little moment of pleasure. That he’s ahead of his boss. And it gives him a few burning questions to ask himself. Which he does, over three more pints, during which he tells Tom they’d best shut up about work, and tries to talk cricket instead.

  Turns out Tom is a footie man. Ironically.

  Which is how, after a period the length of which feels somewhat uncertain, Charlie finds himself, in the early hours, on a familiar street once again. He is brandishing his weapon of choice in his gloved hands: a coathanger borrowed from Cassie at the pub, which he has bent into a particular shape that he recalls from another of those courses he attended on his own initiative. It does not take too long to get new locks fitted. One goes to Yellow Pages, and lets one’s fingers do the walking. New, secure, windows, however … He is now in Faulkner’s empty, untended little patch of soil where a garden should be and having, he hopes, already made sure nobody’s about, he is repeating what the previous burglar did, slipping the wire in through the gap in the wood, and working it round to … There, the small window is open just enough for him to push his pen through and flick up the catch. Then he spins the wire in his hand, and uses the loop he’s made on the other end to drop through the small window, and pull open the catch on the big one below it.

  So easy a drunk could do it.

  He hauls himself over the windowsill and into the front room, then closes the window behind him, draws the curtains again. He pauses for a moment. The house is silent. All is dark. But after a moment, the streetlight outside gives him enough light to work by. He’s in a nice little parlour. There are family photos, flowers in vases, a desk, so
me commemorative plates. Faulkner is clearly a prissy young man, civilized before his time.

  Why is Charlie here?

  To make a connection. A connection he’s pretty sure the DG doesn’t know about. A connection the finding of which might save his career. He pieced it together in the pub, and he’s kept repeating it to himself to get it straight. The DG must have been told, by those above him, that there’s about to be a high-profile assassination attempt. He knows a serving military officer is involved. He knows someone known to the Silver Helix is involved. Which puts Faulkner, recently part of a mystery, right in the frame. But the DG doesn’t yet know that Faulkner also fits the third part of his puzzle, that Faulkner has a surprising union connection, because only Charlie knows that. It might take days for the DG to track that down. And, if this is about an assassination, they don’t have that long. Now, were Charlie sober, he might well have just called it in, allowed himself to take small credit like that. But no, our boy is grandiosely sozzled, and being influenced by powers greater than himself that he’s been soaked in for so long it almost feels like they’re part of his character. Almost. He is doing something rash, just as men with guns and bombs in similar situations have often done something rash. But, oh dear, Charlie only has a coathanger.

  His plan, such as it is, is to find the union membership documents that Faulkner was given, photograph them, and take those to the DG. Solid proof. So me showing initiative wasn’t so ridiculous, was it, sir? What it all adds up to, he has no idea. He’ll breathe a sigh of relief and leave that to the greater powers to sort out.

  He tries a couple of drawers in the desk and finds the papers. He’s just about to get his camera out when the light comes on.

  Charlie turns slowly, one hand still, unfortunately, in the pocket of his mac. In the doorway, in his dressing gown, with lightning flickering between his hands and a pair of piercing eyes under his blond short back and sides, stands the galloping captain. ‘Another one!’ he says. He sounds exasperated. Which is not quite the emotion Charlie expected. ‘Why?’

  ‘Complicated,’ says Charlie. ‘Mate, it’s been a long day, can I sit down?’

  ‘Throw your gun on the floor.’

  Charlie slowly withdraws his hand from his mac, and throws his camera on the floor.

  ‘Don’t tell me you’re not armed?’

  ‘Search me if you want.’

  Faulkner instead takes a step closer, the intensity of the lightning increasing. ‘No false moves,’ he says.

  ‘I have always thought,’ says Charlie, ‘that was a very strange expression.’

  ‘Who do you work for?’

  ‘By now I’m probably between jobs.’

  ‘Who did the first one work for? Why didn’t he know?’

  Charlie wonders what they were both supposed to know. ‘Listen. I’m going to tell you the truth. I think you were burgled on orders, just on the basis of you being an ace in the military who was … d’you reckon you’ve been behaving oddly lately? It would have been very obvious, you’re no bloody good at tradecraft.’ He burps. ‘Sorry. I’m a bit pissed. Anyhow, that odd behaviour got you looked into, and you zapped the poor sod who’d been employed to do that, and then word came from on high that you weren’t to be troubled. So now a whisper has come down again that no, you’re definitely dodgy, but that other word from on high is still protecting you from the consequences … except it probably won’t when they’ve put all the pieces together.’

  ‘It won’t matter after tomorrow morning.’

  ‘Oh. Shit. Don’t go telling me stuff like that. I’m still hoping to get out of here.’

  But Faulkner has a fanatic’s gleam in his eye now. This one, thinks Charlie, has been acted upon by greater powers even more than he himself has. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and in that spoon there was some serious shit. ‘The previous one tried to tell me he didn’t know anything, that he wasn’t there to kill me. I didn’t want to hurt him. I told him I was acting on the highest authority, that whoever he reported to must have got it wrong, that someone there must have been informed about what I’ve been ordered to do.’

  Ruskin would have played along with that too, thinks Charlie, kept that conversation going until he could try to get out. Hence the long conversation. ‘Surely,’ he says, ‘you know by now that the establishment isn’t one big thing, but a bunch of warring cliques that couldn’t coordinate a piss-up in a brewery? Why do you think everyone was informed of whatever this mission of yours was?’

  ‘Because of who it came from! From the very top! And I’ve been proven right, haven’t I? He’s ordered you to let me proceed! And yet here you are!’

  The whole thing comes together at once in Charlie’s head. And he’s sure he didn’t manage to keep up his usual poker face. Because in that second he also knows he’s dead. ‘Oh,’ he sighs. ‘Oh, sod this for a game of soldiers.’

  He leaps for the window. As Ruskin did.

  The window explodes with light.

  Charlie wasn’t as fast as Ruskin, and that’s saved him. He staggers back towards Faulkner, who’s quickly slamming his palms together, over and over, building up a bigger and bigger charge between them. Charlie notes, absently, that the sofa is on fire. Faulkner is looking at him with bulging eyeballs, as if, should Charlie go for the window again, he’ll use whatever charge he’s got, and that might well be enough for Charlie to go down and for Faulkner to follow up with his hands and whatever else he’s got handy.

  ‘You poor bastard,’ says Charlie. And he means it.

  ‘Your … sympathy is misplaced!’ yells Faulkner, building up to his big moment.

  Charlie wishes he had a Roger Moore line. He has a moment to decide on the freshest looking flowers. He grabs the vase and throws the contents over Faulkner’s hands.

  Faulker goes up like Guy Fawkes. And for similar reasons.

  Charlie lands on the carpet, and watches the man stagger, screaming, for just a few moments, thank God … before he crumples into a blazing heap.

  Charlie is breathing so hard he feels as if he’s going to throw up. The room is starting to fill with smoke. And there goes the fire alarm upstairs. Charlie has one thing he has to do before he gets out.

  He goes to the desk, gets those union membership papers, and throws them on top of the burning Faulkner, watching until every detail of them is ash. He just hopes Boulton hasn’t finalized the content of next month’s newsletter.

  The rest of the evening’s a bit of a blur. Charlie stumbles out of a burning house as the fire crew is rushing in. The next thing he knows, he’s in the back of an ambulance, with an oxygen mask on his face. After that, he’s in a hospital bed, and the ward is completely dark, and all he can hear are the sounds of snoring, but there is a very awake man standing beside his bed, looking in astonishment at him.

  Charlie realizes it’s the DG. ‘You,’ he says, ‘have friends in high places. I don’t know how accidental what happened tonight was. You should give some thought to what story you’re going to tell. But that’s just for form’s sake. Because blundering into the middle of all that suited everybody. It turns out.’ It appears as if there are questions he wants to ask Charlie, because he’s still looking as if he’s witnessing a miracle. But before Charlie can start to cough out an answer, the DG is marching off. Charlie goes back to sleep.

  A couple of weeks later, once Charlie’s back at work and has taken the hint and told his story of having been working covertly for the DG the whole time, to much applause in the corridors, he’s invited to visit 10 Downing Street.

  This makes him worried all over again. He hasn’t seen the DG since that deniable hospital visit. He gets the feeling he’s not going to be called upon again. In his best suit, he waits in a corridor, then is called in to the office of the Prime Minister.

  There he is, enormous, standing at the window, everything in this stuffy museum of an office looking too small for his big hands. He turns, as if in the middle of an important thought, and has j
ust realized Charlie’s here. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Mr Soper. You have done both me and your country a great and solemn service.’

  Charlie has thought about what he’s going to say. He’s got away with it. He should just accept that. But that would be letting down other people. Or maybe he just can’t resist biting the hand that hasn’t slapped him. ‘By saving your life? Because Captain Faulkner was planning an assassination?’

  ‘Indeed. And he had the access to do it. Without having to sneak in some weapon. Though …’ Churchill finally makes bleary, red eye contact with Charlie. ‘His motives remain a mystery.’

  Yeah. Because Charlie burned those papers. ‘There are those who say, sir, that after a certain time of night, after dinner, after drinks, after the black dog of depression is given its hours, orders are issued from this office which are, as a matter of policy, ignored. I’ve often wondered what might happen if one of those accidentally got through and was acted upon.’

  ‘I do not see what—’

  ‘I’ve often wondered. But I think I just found out. What happens is that everyone falls over themselves trying to hint and obfuscate and they end up blundering into each other trying to both obey and not obey what they know to be an entirely undemocratic instruction.’ Churchill is silent. Reddened. Furious. But he knows. He knows Charlie has him. And, thank God, he does not feel able to threaten Charlie with anything. He knows there are others who’d jump to take advantage of what Charlie’s worked out. And he has no idea what evidence Charlie’s picked up along the way. ‘I gather you thought, late one night, that you might end your premiership with a certain degree of spectacle. Make one last heroic sacrifice for the beloved country. Take down with you the bastards you see as a threat to it.’

  Churchill pauses. Considers. ‘Your country does owe you … advancement. And I personally owe you a debt which—’

  Charlie didn’t think he was going to get angry in the moment of doing what he’d already decided to do, but now he is. ‘Oh no. No, sir. No, sir, I won’t hear those words in this office in that voice after all the much better words you’ve said from here before. There’s only one thing I’m after. And then we’re even. There is one more sacrifice you can make for your country. Then we all get to stand up and applaud. And you get to take a bow knowing we mean it.’

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