Authors: John Tranhaile
Tags: #Fiction, #Espionage, #General
David Lescombe did not look like a man about to face a make-or-break interrogation. Only the churning in his stomach gave the game away, and only to him.
He walked up and down the corridor, hands clasped behind his back. At one end was a high window overlooking London’s Whitehall; whenever he reached it he would pause for a few moments to examine the busy scene, before resuming his steady progress to and fro.
On every sweep of the corridor he passed a leather-padded door above which hung a sign:
COMMITTEE ROOM TWELVE
. Soon he would have to go through it. Whenever David thought of that, his stomach knotted and he walked on a little more quickly, as if by doing so he might escape what lay on the other side of the innocent-looking door. He glanced at his watch. Did he have time to run to the lavatory? No, don’t risk it, this morning of all mornings, don’t risk
He was about to be subjected to the process known as “positive vetting.”
He came to a halt by the window. Outside it was a cold, bright winter morning, but David no longer saw it. Eager to escape the present, he remembered his youth: another passage not unlike this one, with busts of former statesmen on pedestals, and heavy-framed oil portraits hanging from the walls. His public school, the headmaster’s study, waiting for judgment.
Seventeen, then. A prefect, someone in authority. Someone
In his class was another boy whom nobody liked. David took a good-natured interest in him, protecting him from the worst excesses of bullying. Hamilton, that was his name.
David folded his arms and leaned against the window embrasure. Why think of Hamilton, a quarter of a century later? Ah, yes, of course. This morning, they proposed to vet him as a precaution against betrayal….
The class had been waiting for a math lesson to start. Their master, “Beaky” Tozer, came in, took one look at the floor beside David’s desk and barked: “What’s
“That” was a pool of black ink, flowing in glossy abundance over the classroom’s parquet floor.
David didn’t know who had spilled it. His desk was next to Hamilton’s, however, and he deduced immediately that one of Hamilton’s enemies (they were legion) must have sluiced the ink as a frame-up: not the first time that had happened. For a moment there was silence. Then, from somewhere at the back, had come the drawl: “Oh, Hamilton, what
“It wasn’t me!” Hamilton’s pale, freckled face grew taut with fear. A brawl developed, with accusations and countercharges flying. David couldn’t believe the stupid childishness of it all. He and several others ended up in front of the headmaster, part of a long-drawn-out inquiry as to who had spilled the ink.
David had weighed up the pros and cons, assessed the risks, and embarked on his first attempt at what years later he learned was called “crisis management.” The headmaster would expect him to name the guilty party. Instead, he’d confessed to the crime himself, pleading carelessness.
“Why?” the headmaster had asked. “I mean, why own up to something we both knew you didn’t do?”
David wasn’t sure.
Standing by the window overlooking Whitehall, he to this day couldn’t be certain. Part of it was a feeling that Hamilton had suffered enough and should be protected from false incrimination; more, perhaps, had to do with David’s inner promptings of how best to deal with the ridiculous. If he confessed, there would be a swift end to an incident that was sapping house morale to an extent he regarded as nonsensical beyond words….
The adult David laughed out loud. He was remembering how, after he’d taken his punishment, a fine as he recalled, the headmaster had said to him, “There’s something I want you to know, Lescombe. It may affect how you handle this kind of thing in the future. Hamilton claimed that it
you who spilled the ink.”
David had stared at him, uncomprehending.
“He blamed you for doing it,” the headmaster said impatiently. “Because he’s a coward and a sneak, and he knew that since you were sitting next to him, he had some pathetic chance of making it stick. But you’ve tied my hands, Lescombe. You and your silly, quixotic confession …”
David moved away from the window, still smiling at the memory of the daft things he’d done in adolescence. Then the leather-padded door swung open,
bringing him fully back to the present with a lurch. “Mr. Lescombe?” he heard a voice say. “Yes.”
A man stood on the threshold of Committee Room Twelve, holding open the door. He was wearing an old thick tweed jacket over flannel trousers, very large in the bottom, and brogues that had been polished almost red. Two jowls hung suspended from either side of his ruddy face, ending in little pockets of dead-looking flesh. He succeeded admirably in his aim of not looking like anyone’s idea of a member of the British intelligence fraternity. He could have passed for an altogether different kind of vet. “Would you come in now, please?” he said.
As David followed the man, his mind was busy making connections. Because he’d done his homework, deliberately seeking out others who had undergone this process and survived, he knew this man to be Jeremy Shorrocks, assistant director of MI6. Genial, that’s what they said about him. A pushover. Brewster, he’s the one you’ve got to watch….
There were three people in Committee Room Twelve: Brewster, a deputy permanent secretary within the cabinet office’s security hierarchy; Shorrocks; and a woman wearing a police commander’s uniform, who David guessed must be from Special Branch. There were no introductions. David swiftly identified the chair he was meant to occupy and sat in it.
During the silence that followed he tried to still the beating of his heart and concentrate on working out how they would see him: a tall, lean man in his early forties wearing a good suit and a calm expression. Yes, fine; stay with that.
“Mr. Lescombe …”It was Brewster, the chairman,
who spoke. “Thank you so much for agreeing to make yourself available this morning.” His smile turned conspiratorial. “I know how these things interrupt schedules.”
“Not at all.”
David crossed his legs at the ankles and languidly rested his hands on the arms of his chair, the fingers unclenched. He prayed that any connoisseurs of body language who might be present would notice and approve.
“You know why we’re here: to consider whether there are any security objections to your admission as a member of the Krysalis committee.” Brewster combined a slight stutter with a liking for mid-word stress.
David cleared his throat, and instantly wished he hadn’t. “Yes indeed.”
“You appear to be clean,” Brewster said, but reluctantly, as if a man without blemish was an oddity.
Shorrocks pushed back his chair and removed a pair of heavy spectacles. “Boringly so,” he agreed with a smile. “First vetted in 1985, no-shows on all subsequent repeats, nice wife, nice boat down at Brighton, no other hobbies, no vices….” He closed his spectacles with a snap and tossed them onto his papers. “Glad I’m not married to you.”
“I’m glad you’re not,” David said. “They’d have to sack us both.”
“There’s just this
thing,” Brewster continued; it was clear that any humor would be lost on him. David resolved to keep a tighter grip on himself. “Just one query.”