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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 25 page 06

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Could I smoke a cigarette in ten minutes? Damned right I could. I took the last one from the packet and scrunched the packet up. The last inch of coffee in my cup had gone cold and I’d finished the schnapps. Oh well. Soon be back at the hotel. Bath, then dinner, or the other way round? These important decisions need to be thought through. The clock was ticking away. What did I expect? A wild-eyed Red Army colonel to burst through the door and fall gasping into my arms? It wouldn’t be that, of course. Most defectors were mid-ranking at best: they knew the systems and codes and ciphers, but they were not generally senior people. In some ways it was better like that — they could collect more material than their bosses ever knew and were easier to deal with. Their expectations of life in the West were lower, too. They’d never enjoyed the perks of the nomenklatura, so simple freedom and a modest pension was usually enough to keep them happy.

I wasn’t a trained interrogator, and had never done much of that part of the job. That wasn’t why I was here: I was a nanny, who knew Berlin a bit and spoke German. But I wondered how senior Andrei was, what it was he was bringing with him, how much was confined to the security of his brain. How long — if he ever came! — how long would he be kept penned up in one of those old country houses the Service uses to keep defectors away from prying eyes and any real freedom? For really big fish, it could be months, years. If Andrei was a cipher clerk at Karlshorst, it might only be a few weeks. Then he’d be released and given a little flat somewhere, Hastings perhaps, and abandoned in a foreign land where he knew nobody and didn’t understand how life worked.

Some flourished, cherished the freedom they’d never had at home, and settled down to comfortable and cheerful existences. Some, the most senior, were spirited away and given new identities because we knew their former masters would come after them. It was a common feature of Eastern Bloc security services that they were vengeful. They didn’t always move quickly, but they had an inexorable momentum. On the other hand, some defectors collapsed as human beings, friendless, purposeless, hopeless. Very few were able to bring their families out with them. They were left alone with their thoughts and tortured by the memories of everyone they’d betrayed.

The clock ticked to five, and I downed the last gulp of cold coffee. I’d done my job. I’d waited obediently. No Andrei. Maybe he’d try again, but it would fall into someone else’s lap. Maybe he’d changed his mind — I knew all too well how often that happens. Or maybe they’d caught him trying to escape. In any event, very firmly filed under Someone Else’s Problem. I picked up my newspaper, then decided I was finished with it, and threw it back on the table. I headed for the door.

It was dark outside. Snow was still falling. I huddled a little further into my coat and bent my head against that wind that whips into Germany from the Russian steppes with little to hold it back. My car was just around the corner. I unlocked it clumsily with icy cold fingers, then sank gratefully into the driver’s seat. It was a mid-range Audi, the most the Department would authorise, but it was comfortable and reliable.

It was only then that I noticed the man sitting in the passenger seat. I gave a shout of surprise and fumbled with the door handle to get out, until I realised he was dead. Very dead. He was sitting bolt upright, buckled into place, but his throat had been cut ear to ear, and the front of his cheap, unmistakeably Eastern Bloc clothes was drenched in blood. I coughed for a moment, then vomited, the cups of coffee coming up in a brown tidal wave all over my trousers and the dashboard. There seemed no end to it, but eventually there was only dry retching, the sneaky schnapps adding to the sour taste in my throat. I breathed through my nose, trying to quell further waves of nausea. It had to be Andrei. Reluctantly, having donned my gloves, I prodded round his pockets, but found nothing. I didn’t expect to. Whoever had done this was a pro, and, anyway, identification wasn’t necessary. The message was as clear as could be.

Still panting, I rummaged in my pockets for the absurd mobile telephone the Berlin office had given me. At the time, I hadn’t seen the need. Now, with trembling fingers, I dialled the line for the duty clerk at Olympiastadion.

“Good evening, British Embassy, Passport Division. How can I help?” came the smooth voice.

“It’s Taylor. There’s a problem. You’d better send someone.”