Winona Kent - The Cilla Rose Affair
“Isn’t she lovely? Dusty Springfield—you only wanna be with me? What a surprise, because funnily enough—I Only Want to Be With You. This is mad Mark Braden, bobbing up and down in the water at a comfortable wavelength of 308 metres—broadcasting to Greater London, the Home Counties, the South, Midlands, East Anglia and Northern Europe. What a mouthful. Graham Stanshall’s up next—keep those lovely cards and letters coming and I’ll see you all again tomorrow night. This is Colourful 308, Radio Seasound, Britain’s most listened-to pop pirate—and here they are, our very own Fab Four—The Beatles—I Feel Fine.”
Evan Harris was listening to his oldest son’s transistor radio. It was a miserable night, a cold and wet night, and the seas were rough. It was a horrible night to be making a journey like this, but the journey was necessary, and he was It.
The tender ploughed through the rising waves, bucking the swells, dipping and crashing. Through the driving rain Evan could see, off to starboard, the swaying lights of the Cilla Rose, her decks, her portholes, her 200 foot mast. She was an old minesweeper, converted after the war to cargo, refitted again in the 1960’s to join the legion of illegal broadcasters anchored in England’s coastal waters.
The captain of the supply boat made two passes at the Cilla Rose. On the third try, he was successful, and lines were hurled out to secure a mooring.
“Come on, then, if you’re going aboard.”
Evan stowed the radio in the pocket of his thick winter duffel, and accepted the steady helping hand of one of the tender’s crew. He stepped gingerly over the chasm, with the sea spuming up between the two bows, and landed safely on the wet wooden deck.
“Half an hour,” the sailor warned him. “If you’re not back in time, here you stay.”
* * *
“Tender’s here.” Graham Stanshall poked his head inside the tiny, windowless control room.
“Cheers, mate.” Mark collected the litter of his airshift—stacks of taped adverts, IDs and jingles, record albums and singles, scraps of scribbled copy—and vacated his post. Outside, he could hear the crew from the supply boat making their way along to the galley for tea and chat. At the other end of the ship, next week’s provisions were being off-loaded. Mark left his colleague in the gangway and climbed topside to see what the tender had brought aboard.
“Hallo, Evan.” A friend from shore. “Come out to keep an eye on me? Always glad to see a pal. Stinking night for it, though.” He lit a cigarette, turning his back to the rain and shielding the flame from the wind with his hand. Evan caught the silent look of warning in his colleague’s eyes. “Want a tour?”
“All right,” he agreed, easily.
“Mind how you go on the stairs, then—she tends to roll quite a bit when the sea’s coming up.”
* * *
Mark unlocked the door to his cabin and held it open. “Home sweet home. Cramped but comfy. All the mod. cons.”
It was a tiny room, with a radiant heater plugged in beside a narrow cot, a multi-duty table littered with magazines, oranges, cigarettes, an electric fan. Mirror on the wall over the sink. Chest of drawers. Cupboard. Lifejacket.
Evan hung onto a wooden handrail in the corridor. He was no stranger to the sea. It coursed through his body, courtesy of a fiery, red-headed Irishman of a grandfather who had been the captain of a merchant sailing vessel. He felt the surge of Connor Harris’s salty blood in his veins and tasted and smelled the tang of the open waters in the ship’s wood and steel and pitch and paint.
He loved the sea.
Unfortunately, the sea did not much love him.
A Dramamine would have helped, but Dramamine had side effects, and he could not afford to be drowsy, his reflexes slowed, his mind off-guard.
“What do you do during storms?” he said, gripping the railing. “Take up the anchor?”
Mark was digging through a drawer. “One of them. She’s got two—one forward, one aft. We haul one up when it starts to get rough and ride ‘round in circles til it stops.” He found what he was looking for: a missal-sized book, of the sort one would expect to find in the darkest depths of the second-hand shops along Charing Cross Road. Its cloth cover was worn, its colour fading to grey. Muirhead’s Short Blue Guide to London.
Evan slipped the book quickly into the pocket of his jacket as a bearded DJ appeared from the cabin next door, lugging a duffel bag.
“Simon Darrow,” Mark said, stepping back out into the companionway, shutting his door again and locking it. “The most recognizable voice in Britain.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of you.” Evan shook his hand.
“Evan Harris,” Mark added. “The actor.”
“I’ve heard of you, too,” Darrow said. They walked together down the hallway. “Heard any updates on that gale warning?”
“It’s been extended to all of the south-east,” Evan said.
Darrow flashed a grin at Mark. “You’re in for a rough night, my old mate.”
“You cheerful sod. Enjoy your shore leave, won’t you? I was just telling my pal here all about Seasound.”
“We’re the Number Two pop pirate in the country,” Simon Darrow said, pushing the door to the deck open and pulling up his hood. “Our main competition comes from Caroline, anchored fifteen miles in that direction —” He nodded towards Frinton-on-Sea. “There’s another ship nearby—Atlanta. And there’s that old wartime defence fort off Whitstable at Shivering Sands.”
“Radio City,” Mark supplied. “The brainchild of Screaming Lord Sutch.”
The wind and the rain had increased appreciably. Evan steeled himself for the return journey over the pitching decks as one of the other DJ’s with shore leave braved the leap. “Makes you wonder where we’ll all be thirty years from now, though, doesn’t it?”
“Earning big fat paycheques in London, I hope,” Mark said. “The government’s doing its level best to scuttle the pirates at the moment—but you watch. Once we’ve lured all the listeners away from old mother BBC and begun to show a profit—they’ll start up their own bloody music stations.”
He held the duffel bag as Darrow leaped over the chasm onto the tender, then pitched it across to his colleague’s waiting arms.
“Have a safe trip back,” he said, to Evan.
“You take care of yourself,” Evan answered. There was danger, still, in Mark’s eyes.
made the crossing, and the lines were loosed, and the tender pulled
away, growling into the storming night.
Saturday, 17 August 1991
The mood, Evan thought, matched the day: raincoats and umbrellas, grey skies, traffic lights reflected on wet pavement, tires sloshing.
The service had been brief, the attendance small. Expatriate Soviets, most of them elderly, some white-haired Poles and Ukrainians, half a dozen locals—neighbours, he would have guessed. Yuri Gregchenko’s body had been cremated, the ashes claimed by a relative who had travelled at great expense from somewhere behind the rapidly disintegrating Iron Curtain, a weary-looking woman with untidy hair.
There, too, was Victor Barnfather from MI5. A courtesy call. Gregchenko was Barnfather’s most famous defector. Had made Barnfather’s career, had propelled him up the corporate ladder in record time, had guaranteed Barnfather a place in the Who’s Who of Secret Spydom.
There were others from the secret world in attendance whose faces Evan recognized, though their names were by now somewhat hazy in his mind. Agents long retired. Sleepers who had never been called into active service. A Surbiton grandmother who had been on the KGB’s payroll for years.
Each paid their own private respects and departed quietly, as was their habit, seeking little attention, attracting only the disaffected interest of passing motorists.
Walking back to his car in the rain, Evan was offered the protection of a large black umbrella.
“Nicholas,” he said. “How are you?”
“There’s another one gone,” the DG of Canada’s Special Overseas Intelligence Unit replied, philosophically. “The Cold War relics. Dropping like flies. One more defecting Soviet who long ago ran out of entertaining stories.” He patted his pockets, and found what he wanted. “I understand in Moscow they’re plotting the overthrow of Gorbachev. Have a sweet.”
“Thank you,” Evan said.
Nicholas Armstrong had spent a good many years in London. His nautical grey beard and gold-rimmed spectacles often caused his newer subordinates to mistake him for a retired man of the sea. His portly countenance and passionate fondness for blackcurrant fruit gums tempered the illusion with a certain sense of benevolence. He reminded Evan, as they circumnavigated the puddles in the parking lot, of Peter Ustinov.
“I’ve half a mind to retire,” Nicholas said.
Evan cast him a dubious, sideways glance.
“What, I’ve amused you? Here we are, Evan, a couple of old spies, not quite worn out but well on our way. Do you know, ever since the Wall came down, I’ve felt positively ancient.”
“You don’t look it,” Evan answered, humouring him.
“Yes, well, you don’t look it either, but that’s beside the point, isn’t it? I feel old. And I can tell you the precise moment, in fact, when the sensation came over me—it was when Gorby made that speech to the opening sitting of the Supreme Soviet. CNN had the foresight to cover it live. There I was, in front of my television, watching the stunned looks on the faces of those starched, old-guard soldiers as their esteemed leader went on about democracy and free market economics, and I don’t mind telling you, Evan, I felt redundant.”
“I actually found most of that rather fascinating, Nicholas.”
“Yes, you would. I won’t argue with you—it was history in the making. All the generals with their rows of ribbons, and the camera cutting to their dumbfounded reactions. The change was happening, right before their eyes—right before our eyes. The beginning of the end, live on CNN.” He shook his head. “Who’d have believed it back when we were in the thick of it, Evan. The Communists self-destructing, the Wall coming down, the Soviet Union coming apart at the seams.”
“It is an interesting thought, isn’t it,” Evan mused. “Apocalyptic change witnessed from one’s favourite armchair.”
“Wouldn’t have happened in our day,” Nicholas said. “We didn’t have the might. Mass communications. That’s what’s at the root of it. All credit due to Reagan and Bush—but it’s fax machines and satellite TV that are hammering the final nails home. Who said it? Knowledge is power.”
“Francis Bacon,” Evan replied, sensibly. They had reached their respective cars.
“I have something to show you,” Nicholas continued, disarming the alarm, and unlocking the doors. “If you’d care to join me inside.”
“You’re my best sweeper, Evan. It takes an agent like you, with more than a few years’ experience, to successfully go about tidying up the leftover odds and ends. Your track record’s impeccable.”
Nicholas dragged his briefcase out from under the front seat.
“Have a look in there, will you?”
Evan slipped on his spectacles and removed a large manila envelope. Inside was a manuscript, badly typed on yellow paper, single spaced.
“Yuri Gregchenko’s memoirs. They’re unfinished—he’d only got about a hundred pages out before he died.”
“I didn’t know he was writing them.”
“I don’t suppose he told anybody,” Nicholas said. “A lot of it’s pretty dreadful stuff: there’s nothing worse than someone who thinks he can write who goes about trying to prove it by graphically detailing every sexual encounter he’s had since the onset of puberty.”
“There is, however, a mention of something that might interest you roundabout page 56.”
Evan sorted through the pages.
“This is interesting,” he agreed.
“It certainly explains what happened aboard the Cilla Rose all those years ago, anyway.”
Evan folded his spectacles back into their case and returned the manuscript to its envelope.
“You keep it,” Nicholas suggested.
“Is this the only copy?”
“As far as I know, it is, yes.”
“And how is it you have it...and not your counterpart at MI5?”
Nicholas patted his pockets again. “A funny thing about the late Yuri Gregchenko,” he said. “He defected in London, was under MI5’s protection for donkey’s years...but he never trusted the Brits. Victor Barnfather in particular.”
“With good reason,” Evan said.
“Yes exactly. When MI5 went through their witch-hunting phase, Barnfather came out smelling like a rose. He survived three separate inquiries, all of them inconclusive.”
“Luck...?” Evan supposed.
“More than luck,” Nicholas replied, dryly. He paused. “I’ve been asked to reopen an investigation on Barnfather, Evan. To come up with something substantive on the man, once and for all. To close the file.”
“We’re an innocuous lot, really, we Canadians. Who better to slink about the subterranean caverns of clandestine London without attracting undue attention to ourselves?” He nodded at the Gregchenko manuscript. “I thought you might make that your starting point.”
“It’s fairly slanderous stuff,” Evan judged.
“It is, at that,” Nicholas agreed. He passed his tube of fruit gums across the car. “Have another sweet.”
“Thank you. I will.”
“No need to emphasize the sensitive nature of this particular assignment to you, of course, Evan. The fewer agents we involve, the better. You won’t be able to deal with it all by yourself, I realize. But you will let me know within the week where your preferences for an assistant lie...?”
“I can tell you that now, Nicholas,” Evan replied. “The only trouble is, I’ve no idea where he’s got to. Perhaps you’d be good enough to employ your considerable talents in tracking him down for me...?”
* * *
“In you go, you slimy Yank.”
The soldier gave Ian a swift, hard kick for good measure, and sent him skidding into the cinderblock wall. His shoulder broke the sideways momentum, and he crumpled to the floor, where he stayed, not caring to allow the Australian mercenary the pleasure of watching him crawl to the slab of wooden planks that passed as a bed.
The Australian slammed the door to the cell and locked it, and joined his colleagues in a riotous joke at the far end of the hallway. There were two of them, both Africans, one a dab hand with the rubber truncheon, the other preferring the simple yet direct results obtained by the judicial application of a riding crop—a holdover from the country’s colonial days—to selected areas of his body.
Ian dragged himself onto the bed and sat, slumped, against the wall, his feet clear of the floor. There were rats. And large black scuttling things with six legs and battle armour. He leaned his head back and shut his eyes. Outside, beyond the baking prison courtyard, a full-scale revolution was in progress. Guns boomed and rockets flared. His assignment had been routine fieldwork; he’d ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time; he’d been arrested, and his papers confiscated.
He’d sat alone in his cell for two days, and on the third morning had been marched down to see Colonel Mobambo, whose office was furnished with a lazy wooden ceiling fan and a window that overlooked one of the main thoroughfares of the coastal African city.
Outside had been the contrast of centuries: battered cars, bicycles, trucks, brightly-painted buses full of people. A hotel pockmarked by artillery fire. A distant airport, now closed, a solitary silver 707 stranded on its single runway, military Jeeps positioned like matchbox toys at strategic points on the dusty highway.
Colonel Mobambo, in his heat-wrinkled fatigues, had leaned back in his chair, pressing his fingertips together, assessing his prisoner. On his desk lay Ian’s passport—American, false—and all of his identification...a camera, minus its film...and a hastily prepared document—a confession—badly typed.
Ian had glanced at this sheet of paper, reading it upside down. There were a number of charges, many involving laws which had been invoked in the wake of the military uprising.
“Not guilty,” he said.
Mobambo grinned, displaying a mouthful of large, perfectly white teeth that gleamed against his black skin. “You may be what you claim—a journalist from Los Angeles. But you must understand my dilemma: if I release you, I am answerable to General Pinkerton, who is absolutely convinced you must be a foreign agent, and sends communications to me daily, demanding your immediate execution.”
Ian waited. Above the desk, the ceiling fan swirled, slowly, stirring nothing but the flies who ventured too close to its smooth wooden blades.
“If I hold you,” Mobambo continued, leaning back, so that his chair gave off a small wooden squeak of protest, “a trial would not be likely to take place in our courts for another two years.” He gave the piece of paper a push with an immaculately-manicured finger. “It might be better—for you—to confess.”
Still, Ian waited.
“You wish to think about it?”
“Yes,” Ian said. “I do.”
“Then we will talk again soon.”
Mobambo had snapped his fingers, and two guards had stepped forward to escort him back to his cell.
It was a given truth in this business that the extraction of information necessarily involved a degree of unpleasantness. Colonel Mobambo’s soldiers had been singularly unpleasant to Ian since his interview in the office. While the so-called civilized nations of the world tended to rely on psychology and pharmaceuticals to accomplish their ends, that level of sophistication hadn’t yet dawned on this dark little corner of the continent. Mobambo’s methods were crude, to say the least.
They covered situations like this in your training sessions. The steps you could follow: parting with a few details to keep your captors guessing—not enough to cause harm to others in your organization and certainly not enough to jeopardize the overall success of your particular mission; denying your guilt—it was expected of you, all part of the game; trying to find out how much your interrogators actually knew—arguing with them, falling back on reason, pleading, swearing, getting angry. And then, there was the oldest trick in the book: giving them the impression you were breaking, the theory being, the more they beat you, the less they knew.
If that was true, Ian thought, then Mobambo’s men were singularly unenlightened. The rope marks on his wrists and ankles—the cuts and bruises on selected regions of his body, and the pain that accompanied them—all attested to that.
He could, of course, always sign the confession. The rules of that part of the game were pretty simple: scribble your signature on the piece of paper, hope the beatings stopped, put your faith in the knowledge that one day, your release would be negotiated as part of a high-level spy swap.
Ian let his breath out. That was another of the theories they liked to trot out in the training sessions. It presumed the existence of strategically valuable spies on the other side. It also presupposed that the penalty for spying was not immediate execution in front of a firing squad.
He’d already witnessed two poor sods meeting a ragged end in front of a bullet-riddled wall in the far corner of the compound.
If he signed that confession, he’d be signing his death warrant.
* * *
Evan collected his mail from the locked slot on the ground floor, and trudged up the three flights of stairs to his Knightsbridge apartment. He let himself in. In the sitting room, he could see his answering machine, winking on and off with red-flash urgency.
Slipping off his shoes, he made himself comfortable on the couch, leaned back, and addressed his messages.
Agent on the other side of the Atlantic. Did he want to play an insidious murderer in a made-for-TV thriller about an award statuette possessed by an unspeakable evil?
“No one’ll suspect you, Evan—that’s the beauty of it: you’ve got that sort of face. Trusting. Kind. Fatherly. Let me know before Tuesday.”
Evan made a note to call Richard in New York and turned his attention to the TV and VCR in the corner of the room. A tape was already in place; he aimed the remote control in the general vicinity of the cabinet, satisfied himself that all of the little red lights, green level indicators and blue digital readouts were appropriately primed, and settled back to watch himself Do Chat.
There was Wally Green, the host of the programme, decked out with Union Jack patriotism in a blue suit and a red and white striped shirt—grinning hugely, a slightly astonished look about the eyes as he ambled across the set and pretended to be amazed by the tumultuous applause from his Shepherd’s Bush audience.
And here was his first guest, who’d carved out a career for himself playing Jarrod Spencer 25 years ago in America, up to plenty of other things nowadays, of course, and here he is to tell us all about his most recent project, won’t you all please give a very warm welcome to Mr. Evan Harris.
Up swelling applause, cheers from the diehards in the back, and The Star appeared from the curtains, shook his esteemed host’s hand and got comfortable in the celebrity swivel chair.
Pleasant individual, Evan thought, offering up a quick assessment of himself. Interesting sort of face.... Very kind, it was true. Very fatherly. Hair the right length, a few lines showing, yes—but only in mirth and then, only about the eyes. Not bad for sixty-something. He could still pass for fifty.
“Welcome to the program, Evan. You played Jarrod Spencer, of course, in that enormously successful secret agent series in the 1960s. How long did it run?”
“Three years, 1967 to 1970.” Expertly, he changed the subject. “I’m about to begin a new series this fall actually, about a man, he’s a gardener, a freelance gardener who hires himself out to various households and somehow manages to put himself in the way of whatever family plots happen to be hatching when he gets there.”
“No James Bond gadgets in this one, I suppose, no secret telephones hidden in soles of shoes, cones of silence or Mrs. Peel karate chops across the old back of the neck —”
“The odd creeping ivy,” Evan conceded, to scattered laughter.
“And what’s it called, this intriguing new series of yours?”
“Bill and Ben. It’s a joke, really: Bill and Ben’s the name of this fellow’s gardening firm, as in Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men —”
“And we all remember the lovely, demure Miss Weed, don’t we, children? Wee-eee-d.”
“Wee-eee-d,” squeaked several members of the audience, in unison, and their embarrassed attempts dissolved into islands of self-conscious laughter.
“— and there is only Ben, you see, as Bill’s fictitious.”
“A sort of silent partner.”
“You might say that, yes.”
“And you’re Ben.”
“As well as Bill, when Bill’s presence is required. It’s rather confusing.”
“Outrageously funny, yes, hilarious, often muddy.”
“Let’s talk about something you’re more often remembered for, Evan, and that’s that delightfully witty, often scathingly silly, television series, Spy Squad, in which you played the title role of Jarrod Spencer.”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
“I gather you still have quite a following.”
“Somewhere,” Evan said, checking cautiously beneath his seat cushions, while there was outrageous laughter from the same manic few who earlier had been screaming “Wee-eee-d” like a chorus of fingernails scratching on slate.
“Even after all these years. That’s admirable, isn’t it? Do they pursue you as they did in the old days, Evan, shrieking, tearing off your clothes, pulling out your hair —?”
“Funny you should mention that, Wally. I was at Heathrow the day before yesterday seeing someone off and this woman came rushing up to me all out of breath. ‘Oooh,’ she said, ‘ooh—I know who you are—you’re that fella on the telly, aren’t you?’ and I said yes I was and she said, ‘Oooh, just wait til I tell my son, he’ll be thrilled to bits I’ve just rubbed shoulders with Captain Kirk.’“
“It just goes to show you, doesn’t it?”
“I didn’t think I looked anything like Captain Kirk, and when she realized she’d got it wrong she came rushing back. ‘I’m so dreadfully embarrassed,’ she said, ‘it’s not Captain Kirk, is it—you’re that other one—with the ears.’“
Wally Green was beside himself.
“Let’s talk about Spy Squad again, Evan. It was a very physical program, wasn’t it?”
“Very physical, yes, but fun, it was great fun. And the odd flowerpot still comes crashing down on me in Bill and Ben but there’s not a lot of physical stuff in this new series, it’s more cerebral, more a comedy of errors, a nice old fellow with a fictitious partner trying to make a living pulling weeds and pruning yews.”
“And occasionally stumbling into a den of intrigue, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Domestic intrigue, though, Wally—nothing MI6 would be much interested in.”
“I’ll still expect to see half a dozen nasty men in black come hurtling across my screen brandishing armed bowler hats in hot pursuit of poor old Jarrod Spencer. Any hint of a revival, a TV movie, you know—an updated version of the old Mandy, Huff and Jarrod team —?”
“It would be interesting, wouldn’t it?”
“And I’m sure we’d love to see whatever became of those characters we were so fond of —” Wally here stood up and led the audience in an enthusiastic round of applause.
“I’d like to, yes,” Evan lied, when the clapping had died down and the host was in his chair again, “but I suspect I’d be the only interested party. The fellow who played Huff—Barry Ryder—he’s directing these days, I think he’s booked up well into the millenium, and Lesley Towne, she was Mandy, we’re not absolutely certain where she’s disappeared to —”
“Dropped off the face of the earth, has she?”
“Lesley, if you’re out there, call Wally. Reverse the charges.”
“Thank you very much. We’ve been chatting with Evan Harris, ladies and gentlemen, late of Spy Squad, now a resident of London while he films Bill and Ben for British TV. We’ll be back in a moment.”
Evan stopped the tape as the telephone in the corner began to ring. He reached across the chesterfield to answer it.
“Nicholas,” he said. “Have you managed to locate my son for me?”