Monday, 24 April 2017

8. Valerie and the Missing Document by Yvonne Witter

Valerie is not my real name of course, it is a pseudonym I use when on “assignment” as I like to call these random, but increasingly frequent requests to divert attention, and ‘deliver the spoils’. The war years is where I really gained my experience, and made connections, which are still very dear to me today.

Betty Croxted from Huddersfield, is what is on my original birth certificate. Betty is not quite as alluring as Marguerite, Helene, or any of the many sexy pseudonyms I employ during my work as a seductress. All my ‘names’ have characters to suit, and a wardrobe which compliments the whole persona. With wigs, make up and dresses, I pass for American, German, Russian, French or Dutch, of course I take my work seriously, I may not be officially employed as an agent, but I take the same risks and am invaluable to agents in achieving their goals. As the only girl in a family of 5 boys, I learnt how to defend myself, even before I had to fight off unwanted attention from officers.  I am not being arrogant here, but I always knew that I was blessed with a figure many would die for, flawless skin, doe eyes that could shed a tear just by thinking about it, and a silky mane.  Standing at 5feet 8 inches, still tall for a woman. My natural talent for picking up accents and foreign languages belies my modest beginnings as a Yorkshire lass.

I don’t often get this opportunity for moments of reflection, but I am feeling the enormity of the magnitude of this assignment, and am feeling uneasy that 24 hours later, no-one has yet arrived to retrieve the document.  Crickey! at one point, I thought that I would never retrieve it from that shoe heel, as it was virtually sealed shut. However, my instructions had been to wait. So here I am pacing back and forth, in this small well furnished apartment. All I have eaten in 24 hours is an apple and copious amounts of coffee and a few shots of whisky. There is enough here to prepare a three-course meal for 4 adults for the next four days, but food and its preparation are the last thing on my mind right now. These mild palpitations are reminiscent of previous dangerous encounters. Sometimes there really is no clue as to what lurks ahead, I just feel a deep sense of foreboding, a knowing even. It is this ‘knowing’ that now plagues me.

I’m feeling relief that I’d told my family that I would be visiting friends for a fortnight, and so, on that score I’m covered for another 5 days at least. I have no interest in the item I recovered, but I feel like my professional pride is at stake, I am keen to do a job well.

Betty now sat, as she lit yet another cigarette, and gazed nonchalantly at the reproduction of Constable’s Kitchen Garden, her mind wandered through the hills and valleys to a time when she was not old enough to do more than tie shoe laces properly. As she remembered making daisy chains, skipping, picking dandelions and playing hide and seek in the undergrowth until dusk accompanied by the family dog Pookie. She imagined Pooky licking her face as a ray of sunlight caressed her cheek, as it stretched through the soft cotton clouds in a clear blue sky. The corners of her mouth were now upturned in a glorious smile as she sunk further into the dark brown Chesterfield and let her arms dangle to the sides, and there she dozed off, overcome with exhaustion.  

Betty jerked from her slumber and opened her eyes, as she was brought back to reality by what sounded like a knock on her door. Her cigarette had now slipped from her fingers into her whisky glass. She stood up quickly, straitened her dress, checked her wig and makeup in the mirror.  She now listened again for the rhythm of the knock. For a while there was nothing, then, knock-knock; knock-knock; knock -knock-knock silence.  This rhythm was repeated once more and Betty knew it was time to open the door.

Monday, 17 April 2017

7. Breakfast briefing in New York by Andrew Shephard

“Well, which is it? Are you and your spook friends incompetent or unlucky? Let me tell you straight, you’d better not be unlucky because in my world you make your own luck.” Senator Harpenden pushed up his glasses and sipped black coffee, keeping his eyes fixed on the fidgety Johnson. The special agent took a small white pill from an envelope in his pocket and washed it down with a glass of Florida orange juice.

“Mind if I smoke, Senator?” Johnson tapped a Marlborough from the packet and lit up, not waiting for a reply. “My line of work has a lot in common with yours. Just when you think a deal is all sewn up, a new player comes and hits you on the blind side.”

The two men sat at opposite ends of an oval table in the private dining room of the Hotel Astor. Breakfast for two had been set and served at one end of the table, but not yet cleared away. One of the two places was untouched, a rolled napkin and empty coffee cup attesting to a late riser.

The senator leaned his big head forward. “We’re talking about the safety of American citizens. This is about the future of the aviation industry, the economic prosperity of this nation of ours. It’s not a game to me, Agent Johnson.”

“Let me tell you what we know,” said Johnson. “I’ll keep it simple like you politicians want it. We know the De Havilland flight test data on the new Comet 4 is gold dust. It’s an instructional manual on how to build a jet airliner that doesn’t kill the passengers. Your friends in Douglas and Boeing need the data to make sure they don’t fall behind. You promise them you can fix it for them… in return for a donation to campaign funds.”

“You are telling me what I already know,” said the senator, yawning.

“So you contact your friend Mr Vanderbilt in the South African Secret Service and you cut a deal with him. They do the legwork for you and get to see the data too because every country wants to build a jet plane now.”

The senator banged the table and the cutlery jumped. “It was going perfectly well until you stuck your nose in.”

“As instructed by the Vice President and the Clandestine Affairs Committee. He decided we should keep an eye on the operation. It’s just as well we did. Mr Vanderbilt’s courier fouled up.”

There was a tap on the door and a slim woman in a silk dressing gown slipped into the dining room.

“Honey, give me a minute. I’m busy just now.” The woman patted the rollers in her hair, ignored his instruction, and marched over to the undisturbed breakfast setting.

“Oh, you just go on. You know your work means zip to me. I’m so exhausted.” She poured herself coffee and arranged toast on her plate.” She looked up at Johnson and smiled at him, as if noticing him for the first time. “Hi, my name’s Chrissy.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure, ma’am.”

“Chrissy is a dancer on Broadway,” said the senator. “She’s an understudy on three different shows.”

“I sure am. Last night I was in the chorus of West Side Story. It was so wonderful I’m sure I’ll never sleep again. Have you seen it, Mr…? Maybe I could get you a free ticket?”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I’ll be leaving for Paris later today, if that’s okay with the senator.”

“Paris? Why Paris again? You said the documents were on their way to Cape Town.”

“I guess a French woman came up on the blind side. The French have a nice little jet of their own, the Caravelle.”

A waiter knocked and walked in carrying a silver tray with a telephone on it. He put the phone down in front of the senator and plugged a long wire into a socket by a lamp.

“Telephone call from the Vice President for you, Senator.” He turned and left the room smartly.

Senator Harpenden picked up the handset, his eyes fixed on Johnson while he talked.

“Yes Richard… you don’t trust them? Well neither do I. So why are we…? I just don’t see what makes it special…”

“Bad news?” asked Johnson.

“The Limeys have woken up to what’s going on in their patch. They’ll do anything to stop the French getting the data. It seems you're free to go to a show tonight after all. Which one do you suggest, Chrissy?”

Monday, 10 April 2017

6. The Oldest Trick In The Book by Jo Cameron-Symes

I was tired of Algiers. The heat was getting to me so I decided to visit the hotel bar. The lobby was incredibly busy. People were gathered around posters advertising a road race from Algiers to Cape Town. Interesting, I thought. I approached the bar and a jovial American turned to me and shook my hand. “Charlie Markman.” “MacRae” “Hello fella, here for the race?” “No, actually, but I may be interested.” “Well if you need a car then I’m the right man to speak to.” “I may partake actually.” “Partake! I like it! Fancy!” Getting slightly irritated at this point I shook the man’s hand again and wrote down the details of the next day’s test run.

The race track was incredibly raucous. Full of dust, petrol fumes and the incredibly loud din of engines. Amongst the spectators to my surprise I saw a familiar woman. “Megan? What are you doing here?” She appraised me coolly and drawled “Oh, hello. So, you like cars too, do you?” What was she doing here? “Where is James?” I asked. “Out there, on the track.” She remarked nonchalantly. “He’s a car enthusiast, you know, always has been.” “But why are you here?!” I asked. “I could ask the same of you!” she says sharply. “You’re supposed to be working!” Feeling scolded I replied, “Well, I’m interested in racing too. I was thinking of competing in the race.” “Well, good luck” she scoffed, “It’s a tricky course, think you’ll be able to manage it?” She sighed, lit a cigarette and shook her head at me as if she was extremely disappointed. She walked very close and leant towards me. “Just remember why you were hired. We are counting on you to deliver.” She blew her cigarette into my face and with that she was gone in a puff of smoke.

I was rattled by this encounter and decided to find James at once to find out what was going on. I rushed down the stairs towards the test track. In my haste, I collided with someone. “I’m so sorry,” I said, turning to discover a distraught, exquisitely beautiful, young woman. Dark, short hair, gamine features and huge brown eyes; ‘Audrey Hepburn’ I thought. “Are you ok?” I said and in a French accent she simply said “No” then suddenly dissolved into tears. She stumbled and placed her hand on my forearm. I was taken aback, but all thoughts of embarrassment dissolved as I vowed to help her. We sat down at a nearby table and I handed her my handkerchief. “Merci,” she said. “I mean, thank you” she smiled glassily. She sighed heavily. “I apologise for my behaviour, I’ve recently had quite a shock.” She looked up at me with her eyes pleading. “Can I help you at all? Do you need help in getting back to your hotel?” She bit her bottom lip as if in thought. “I am staying in my friend’s apartment. In a small village by the sea, just past Oran, along the coast road. I always need to be near to the sea. But Monsieur, do not worry. It will be a long way from your hotel, I’m sure. I’ll make it back somehow” and she stood. Why not kill two birds with one stone, I thought. “No, of course I can take you back. I can arrange to borrow one of these cars. I was here to test drive one anyway.” She looked up at me and for the first time her smile beamed brightly. 

We took Charlie’s powerful red Triumph TR3. Charlie was happy to give me the keys, especially when he saw that I was in the company of a beautiful woman. Driving along the coast road I asked for her name. “Valerie. And yours?” “MacRae” I said. “How formal!” she laughed. “I’m so sorry about earlier, I worked myself up into a terrible state, I’m sorry.” “No, don’t apologise.” “It was being there, at the racetrack. I shouldn’t have gone, my poor husband always loved motor racing.” She hugged herself tightly as if for reassurance. I admit, I momentarily forgot all about the mission, realised that I had completely forgot to find James, but no matter I thought. For today, this was my mission, to see this lady safe.

Valerie directed me off the main road to her apartment. It was a simple but beautiful affair, with huge windows and an attractive balcony. “Can I offer you a drink?” she said. “A glass of wine perhaps?” “Yes, thank you” I said “Perhaps a glass of water too, if it’s not too much trouble?” “Eau et vin! Comme si tu es le Christ!” she laughed sarcastically. “I suppose” I said surprised by her tone and change into French. Dehydrated from the heat, I gulped down the water too fast. I apologised and began to sip the wine which had an acrid tang. “What is this?” I said. “It’s rather strong!” Gesturing to the room she replied “It’s my friend’s wine from his family’s vineyard.” “His?” I said puzzled.  I had assumed that the apartment belonged to a female friend. “So which part of France are you from?” I asked “Oh, I’m not from France. I’m French-Canadian.” This surprised me too. Something about her seemed so Parisian. Her elegance maybe? I wasn’t sure. In fact, I was less sure of anything. Flushed with heat and dizziness, I tried to loosen my shirt collar. The room started to blur in and out of focus before my eyes. “I’m feeling quite unwell.” I said, trying to stand up. Then everything fell into darkness…

When I came to my head was in agony. The light was much softer and I was in an unfamiliar room. Then I remembered. Valerie! I searched the room but it was completely bare, no clothes, nothing in it at all. My car keys were also missing from my jacket pocket. I immediately grabbed my shoe and removed the small compartment where the documents were hidden. They too were gone, replaced with a note that said, “Search the bureau.” Cursing, I tore the drawers apart. Stuck to the underside of the top drawer, I found this message…

Caravelle? What could that mean?

Monday, 3 April 2017

5. Slightly Wrong-Footed by Clair Wright

I’m feeling pretty sore over losing the documents back in Paris. I got careless, he got lucky; it won’t be happening again. 

In the meantime there are some advantages to being dead, metaphorically speaking of course.  The English guy, Alan, isn’t looking for me – not yet, anyhow. That was his mistake; too much confidence in his old French comrade. Sadly misplaced. 

I catch the next boat to Algiers and check into a passable place in the Kasbah – the usual thing – tiled walls, orange trees, terrible bathroom arrangements. It’s a more anonymous choice than the swanky place favoured by Alan; it doesn’t take me long to find where he is staying and I find the night porter to be very helpful with the usual encouragement. 

I find a café in a narrow street off the main square and order a coffee. It’s thick and black and burns in my guts but I can’t bear the mint tea that’s the only other offering.  A kid – a boy maybe eight or nine, hard to tell – recognises me as foreign money and heads straight for my table. 

“Shoe shine?” he asks. He drops to his knees and makes ready with a brush and a rag. I shake my head. He switches tactics, and holds his hand out, looking me straight in the eye. I decide he might be useful.  

“Okay kid. Do you want to earn this?” I address him in French, as my Arabic doesn’t extend beyond ordering a beer, but I flash a few coins in my palm and he gets the message. He’s instantly more respectful and attentive. “There’s an English guy staying in the Hotel Mourad. I want to know where he goes and who he speaks to. Understand?” He nods and holds out his hand. I drop in a couple of coins. He looks disappointed. “The rest later. Come back at six.” He shrugs and sets off across the square, quickly disappearing into the afternoon traffic. 

I buy some bread and oranges and retreat to my room. I don’t want to risk running into Alan until I’m ready. 

At six I return to the café. The shoe-shine boy is waiting for me. He gives me a run-down of his afternoon’s mission, with plenty of embellishment which he seems to think might earn him extra. Despite this, the information is useful enough for my purposes, so I slip him a ten franc note and he runs away, satisfied. 

I pick my moment carefully and with a certain amount of relish.  The Englishman is returning to his room, sluggish after a generous lamb tagine and a bottle of shiraz.  He’s a pro, but he can’t hide his shock when I step out of the shadows.  

I take a moment to enjoy the flicker of confusion which passes over his face. He seems to accept quickly that I have the upper hand here. He nods when I gesture towards his door. This is business best conducted in private. 

I glance around the opulently furnished room, though I am hardly expecting the documents to be lying on the desk.  Alan pours himself a brandy and invites me to join him. I decline, amused by the English habitual concern with courtesy. 

I decide to take the direct approach. We are both professionals, and I would prefer to avoid the inconvenience of having to dispose of another corpse in a strange city so soon after dispatching the Frenchman.

“You don’t want Vanderbilt to get these plans any more than we do, I’m thinking,” I offer, as Alan swirls his brandy around the glass. 

He raises his eyebrows. “On the contrary, I have no strong feelings on the subject,” he replies.

“Come on,” I say. “Don’t try to tell me it’s all about the money. I’m disappointed in you. What happened to Queen and Country and all that bullshit?”

“Why?” he says, turning to face me. “How much are you offering? Did your boss give you a budget?” 

I don’t like the way his lip curls when he says this, like I’m a government stooge. 

“I’d start being more helpful if I were you,” I say. I slip my hand into my vest pocket and withdraw it, just a little, so he can see the handle of my MK-22. 

His curled lip broadens into a smile. “Come now, where would that get you?” he asks, pouring himself another generous slug of brandy.  You don’t know the whereabouts of the documents. I do. You want them; I have them. I am worth a good deal more to you alive, than dead. We both know that, don’t we, Mr Johnson?”

Now he has me slightly wrong-footed.  I feel the tick starting under my right eye.  “Oh I’m sorry, am I not supposed to know your name?” he smiles at me again. 

I find myself pouring brandy into a glass. I down it as he says, “Why don’t you contact your boss, and see what he might like to offer me? Maybe we can do business after all.” 

“I’ll see myself out,” I reply, and leave him to his nightcap.