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6

'Yes,' said Theodorescu, 'now I definitely know.' He was carrying, Hillier now noticed, the kind of stick known as a Penang lawyer. 'You, of course, Miss Devi, have known a little longer. That branded S tells all. Soskice's work, a cruel operator. The face of Hillier still unknown, but that signature snaking all over Europe, revealed only to the debagger-and your enemies, Mr Hillier, do not go in for debagging, not having been educated in British public schools to them, I say, or to a lady with the manifold talents of Miss Devi here.'

'I was a bloody fool,' said Hillier. 'There's no point in my denying my identity. Look, I feel as though I'm having a medical. Can I put something on?'

'I think not,' said Theodorescu. Miss Devi still had Hillier's robe about her; she was also sitting on her bunk, so that Hillier could not tug a sheet or blanket off. Hillier sat down on the cabin's solitary chair, set under the porthole. To his left was a dressing-table. In those drawers would be garments. Even now, the prospect of wearing one of Miss Devi's saris or wisp of her underwear met a physical response he had to hide with both hands. Again, in one of those drawers might be a gun. He risked putting out a hand to a drawer-handle, tugged, but the drawer was locked. 'It is better, Mr Hillier, that you sit there in puris naturalibus, delightful coy phrase. Let us see you as you are. Dear dear dear, how scarred your body has been in war's or love's lists. But I would like to see the face. Pads of wax in the cheeks, I should imagine; the mouth-corner drawn down in a sneer by simple stitching? Is that moustache real? Why do your eyes glitter so? Never mind, never mind. The time for talk is short. Let us talk then.'

'First,' said naked Hillier, 'tell me who you are.'

'I operate under my own name,' said Theodorescu, leaning against the wardrobe. 'I am utterly neutral, in the pay of no power, major or minor. I collect information and sell it to the highest-or shall I say higher? -bidder. I see only two men, usually in Lausanne. They bid according to the funds their respective organisations render available. It is a tolerably profitable trade, relatively harmless. Occasionally I make a direct sale, no auctioning. Well, now. Would you, Miss Devi, be good enough to dress? We will both look the other way, being gentlemen. And then I'd be glad if you'd proceed at once to the radio-room. You know what message to send.'

'What is all this?' asked Hillier. 'Something about me?' Miss Devi rose from her bed, bundling up sheets and blankets as she did so. These she threw, a billow of white and brown, on to the space between Theodorescu and the cabin-door, so that Hillier could not get at them. Theodorescu then stepped gracefully aside, that she might take garments from the wardrobe. She chose black slacks and a white jumper. Hillier, naked, no gentleman, watched. She drew on the slacks without removing the bathrobe. Then she removed and threw it among the sheets and blankets, making Hillier gulp with the nostalgia of shared passion. She pulled the sweater on. Her hair, still flowing, was trapped in it. She released it with a long electric crackle. Hillier gulped and gulped. Theodorescu had kept his eyes averted, looking through the porthole at the deep Adriatic night. Miss Devi smiled at nothing, thrust her feet into sandals, then silently left. Theodorescu came to sit heavily upon the bunk. He said: 'You will have guessed what the message is. You are, if my informants in Trieste have not lied, now on your final assignment. I do not know what the assignment is, nor do I much care. The fact is that you will not be landing in Yarylyuk. Miss Devi is informing the authorities in a suitably cryptic form they will know how to interpret -that you are on your way. They will be awaiting you on the quayside. I am not doing this for money, Mr Hillier, for, of course, you will not be landing. There will be men waiting for Mr Jagger or whatever new persona you might consider assuming, and they will find nobody answering your description. They mny, of course, find it necessary to strip one or two of the male passengers, looking for a telltale S. Those who are stripped-and they will not be many, most of our compagnons de voyage being old and fat- those who are will not object: it will be a story about adventures in a brutal police-state to retail over brandy and cigars back home. You would, if you were to stay on board instead of landing, also be in some slight danger. For these dear people are efficient at winkling out their quarry, as you well know. Visitors are allowed aboard, in the interests of the promotion of international friendship. This port of call is the sweet-sour sauce of the whole meaty trip. A British meal, British whisky, a few little purchases in the ship's gift-shop these are encouragements to keep the Black Sea open to British cruises. There will be people wandering the ship looking for you, Mr Hillier. There may even be police-warrants, trumped-up charges. The Captain will not want too much trouble.'

'You do talk a lot,' said Hillier.

'Do I? Do I?' Theodorescu seemed pleased. 'Well, I'd better come to the point or points, had I not? Tomorrow a helicopter will be picking up Miss Devi and myself. We shall be sailing quite near the island of Zakynthos. You are cordially invited to come with us, Mr Hillier.'

'Where to?'

'Oh, I have no one headquarters. We could spend a pleasant enough time, the three of us, in my little villa near Amalias.'

'And then, of course, I would be sold.'

'Sold? Sold? Could I not sell you now if I wished? No, Mr Hillier, I trade only in information. You must be a repository of a great deal of that. We could take our time over it. And then you could go, free as the air, well-rewarded. What do you say?'

'No.'

Theodorescu sighed. 'I expected that. Well, well. The delights that Miss Devi is qualified to purvey are, as you already know, very considerable. Or rather you do not yet know. You've had time to touch only their fringes. Women I do not much care for myself -1 prefer little Greek shepherd-boys but Miss Devi this I have been assured of by some whose judgement I respect on other matters of a hedonistic kind Miss Devi is altogether exceptional. Think, Mr Hillier. You're retiring from the hazardous work of espionage. What have you to look forward to? A tiny pension, no golden handshake-'

'I'm promised a sizeable bonus if I do this last job.'

'If, Mr Hillier, if. You know you won't do it now. Soon you will not say even "if". I offer you money and Miss Devi offers herself. What do you say to that? I am not likely to be less generous in my own bestowals than Miss Devi is in hers.'

'I could think better,' said Hillier, 'if I had some clothes on.'

'That's good,' said Theodorescu. 'That's a beginning. You talk of thinking, you see.'

'As for that, I've thought about it. I'm not coming with you.'

'Like yourself,' said Theodorescu, 'I believe in free will. I hate coercion. Bribery, of course, is altogether different. Well, there are certain things I wish to know now. I shall pay well. As an earnest of my generosity I start by rescinding the debt you owe me. The Trencherman Stakes.' He laughed. 'You need not pay me the thousand pounds.'

'Thank you,' said Hillier.

As if Hillier had really done him a favour, Theodorescu pulled a big cigar-case from his inner pocket. At the same time he allowed to peep out coyly bundles of American currency. 'Hundred-dolla: bills, Mr Hillier. "C's", I think they call them. Do have a cigar.' He disclosed fat Romeo and Juliets. Hillier took one; he'd been dying for a smoke. Theodorescu donated fire from a gold Ronson. They both puffed. The feminine odours of Miss Devi's cabin were overlaid with blue wraiths of Edwardian clubmen. 'Do you remember,' said Theodorescu dreamily, 'a certain passage in the transports you seemed to be sharing with Miss Devi an excruciatingly pleasurable one, in which it seemed that a claw sharpened to a needle-point pierced a most intimate part of your person?'

'How do you know about that?'

'It was arranged. It was a special injection, slow-working but efficacious. A substance developed by Dr Pobedonostev of Yuzovo called, I believe, B-type vellocet. That has entered your body. In about fifteen minutes you will answer any question I put to you with perfect truth. Please, please, Mr Hillier, give me the credit for a little sense, more a little honesty, before you say that this is sheer bluff. You see, you will not fall into a trance, answering from a dream, as with so many of the so-called truth-drugs. You will be thoroughly conscious but possessed of a euphoria which will make concealment of the truth seem a crime against the deep and lasting friendship you will be convinced subsists between us. All I have to do is to wait.'

Hillier said, 'Bastard,' and tried to get up from the chair. Theodorescu immediately cracked him on the glans penis with his Penang lawyer. Hillier tried to punch Theodorescu, but Theodorescu parried the blow easily with his stick, puffing at his cigar with enjoyment. Hillier then had time to attend to his privy agony, sitting again, rocking and moaning.

'It is because I believe in free will as you do,' said Theodorescu, 'that I want you to answer certain questions totally of your volition. The first question is for five thousand dollars. It is rather like one of these stupid television quiz-games, isn't it? Note, Mr Hillier, that I needn't pay you anything at all. But I've robbed you of your chance of a bonus and I must make amends.'

'I won't answer, you bastard.'

'But you will, you will, nothing is. more certain. Is it not better to answer with the exalted and, yes, totally human awareness that you yourself are choosing, not having information extracted from you with the aid of a silly little drug?'

'What's the first question?' asked Hillier, thinking: I needn't answer, I needn't answer, I have a choice.

'First of all, and for five thousand dollars, remember, I want to know the exact location of the East German escape route known, I believe, as Karl Otto.'

'I don't know. I honestly don't know.'

'Oh, surely. Well, think about it, but think quickly. Time is short for you, if not for me. Second, for six thousand dollars, I wish to be told the identities of the members of the terrorist organisation called Volruss in Kharkov.'

'Oh, God, you can't-'

'Wait, Mr Hillier. I haven't said anything about selling this information to the Soviet authorities. It's a matter of auctioning. So it's essential that, on top of this particular disclosure, you also reveal the code that I need to contact them. I understand it's a matter of putting a personal message in your British Daily Worker. The only British newspaper allowed in the Soviet Union, as you know, hence invaluable for conveying messages to those disaffected and vigorous bodies which are so annoying-though perhaps only annoying as a mosquito-sting is annoying annoying, I say, to the MGB. I doubt it their representative will outbid the 'emigr'e sponsors of Volruss.'

Hillier, who now felt no pain, who no longer saw any embarrassment in his nakedness, who felt warm and rested and confident, smiled at Theodorescu. An intelligent and able man, he thought. A good eater and drinker. A man you could have a bloody good night out with. No enemy; a mere neutral who was wisely making money out of the wThole stupid business that he, Hillier, was opting out of because the stupidity had recently become rather nasty. And then he saw that this must be the drug beginning to take effect. It was necessary to hate Theodorescu again, and quickly. He got up from his chair, though smiling amiably, and said: 'I'm going to get my bathrobe, and you're not bloody well going to stop me.' Theodorescu at once, and without malice, cracked both shins hard with the Penang lawyer. Pain flowed like scalding water. 'You fucking swine, Theodorescu,' he gritted. And then he was grateful to Theodorescu for turning himself into the enemy again. He was a good man to be willing to do that. He saw what was happening; he saw that he would have to be quick. 'Give me the money,' he said. 'Eleven thousand dollars.' Theodorescu whipped out all his notes. 'Karl Otto,' he said, 'starts in the cellar of Nummer Dreiundvierzig, Schlegelstrasse, Salzwedel.'

'Good, good.'

'I can only name five members of Volruss in Kharkov. They are N. A. Brussilov, I. R. Stolypin, F. Guchkov -1 can't remember his patronymic-'

'Good, good, good.'

'Aren't you going to take this down?'

'It's going down. This top button in my flies is a microphone. I have a tape-recorder in my left inside pocket. I was not scratching my armpit just then. I was switching it on.'

'The others are F. T. Krylenko and H. K. Skovaioda.'

'Ah, a Ukrainian that last one. Excellent. And the code?'

'Elkin.'

'Elkin? Hm. And now, for twelve thousand dollars, the exact location exact, mind of Department 9A in London.'

'I can't tell you that.'

'But you must, Mr Hillier. More, you will. Any moment now.'

'I can't. That would be treason.'

'Nonsense. There is no war. There is not going to be any war. This is all a great childish game on the floor of the world. It's absurd to talk about treason, isn't it?' He smiled kindly with the huge polished lamps of his eyes. Hillier started to smile back. Then he stood up again and lunged at Theodorescu. Theodorescu himself stood and towered high. He took both of Hillier's punching hands gently in his, still savouring his cigar. 'Don't, Mr Hillier. What's your first name? Ah, yes, I remember. Denis. We're friends, Denis, friends. If you don't tell me at once for twelve thousand dollars, you will tell me in a very few minutes for nothing.'

'For God's sake hit me. Hit me hard.'

'Oh no. Oh dear me no.' Theodorescu spoke prissily. 'Now come along, my dear Denis. Department 9A of Intercep. The exact location.'

'If you hit me,' said Hillier, 'I shall hate you, and then when I tell you I shall be telling you of my own volition. That's what you want, isn't it? Free will.'

'You're approaching the crepuscular zone, but you've not yet entered it. You'll be telling me because you want to tell me. See, here is the money. Twelve thousand dollars.' He fanned the notes before Hillier's swimming eyes. 'But be quick.'

'It's off Devonshire Road in Chiswick, W.4. Globe Street. From Number 24 to the dairy at the end. Oh, God. Oh, God forgive me.'

'He'll do that,' nodded Theodorescu. 'Sit down, my dear Denis. A pleasant name, Denis. It comes from Dionysus, you know. Sit down and rest. You seem to have nowhere to put this money. Perhaps I'd better keep it for you and give it you when you have clothes on.'

'Give it me now. It's mine. I earned it.'

'And you shall earn more.' Hillier grabbed the money and held it, like figleaves, over his blushing genitals. 'It's a pity you won't come with Miss Devi and me tomorrow. But we'll find you, never fear. There aren't very many places you can retire to. We shall be looking for you. Though,' he said thoughtfully, 'it's quite conceivable that you will come looking for Miss Devi.'

Abject shame and rising euphoria warred in Hillier. He kept his eyes tight shut, biting his mouth so as not to smile.

'You're not a good subject for B-type vellocet,' said Theodorescu. 'There are certain powerful reserves in your bloodstream. You should now be slobbering all over me with love.'

'I hate you,' smiled Hillier warmly. 'I loathe your bloody fat guts.'

Theodorescu shook his head. 'You'll hate me tomorrow. But tomorrow will be too late. You'll sleep very soundly tonight, I think. You won't wake early. But if you do, and if Miss Devi and I are not yet helicoptering off to the isles of Greece at the time of your awakening, it will be futile to attempt to do me harm. I shall be with the Captain on the bridge most of the morning. Moreover, you have nothing with which to do me harm. I took the precaution of entering your cabin and stealing your Aiken and silencer. A very nice little weapon. I have it here.' He took it from his left side-pocket. Hillier winced but then smiled. He nearly said that Theodorescu could keep it as a present. As if he had actually said that, Theodorescu put it back, patting the pocket. 'As for the ampoules you had in the same stupid hiding-place it was stupid, wasn't it? So obvious-as for those, you can keep them, whatever they are. Perhaps lethal -1 don't know. I found your hypodermic in one of your suitcases. I took the precaution of smashing it. It's best to be on the safe side, don't you agree?'

'Oh, yes, yes,' smiled Hillier. 'How did you get into my cabin?'

Theodorescu sighed. 'My dear fellow. There are duplicates in the purser's office. I said I'd lost my key and I was made free of the board on which the duplicates hang.'

'You're a bloody good bloke,' said Hillier sincerely.

Theodorescu, looking down on Hillier by the porthole, heard the door behind him open. 'Miss Devi,' he said without turning. 'You've been rather a long time.'

'I have, have I?' said Wriste in a girlish voice. He pouted, toothless, towards turning Theodorescu. 'What you doing with him there? He'll catch his death sat like that.'

'He likes to sit like that, don't you, Denis?'

'Oh yes, yes, Theo, I do.'

'Just because a bloke's had a bit of a dip in the jampot,' said Wriste, 'there's no call to get vindictive and sarky. She said she was your secretary. Now we know better, don't we?'

'This,' said Theodorescu, 'is a lady's cabin. You've no right to enter without knocking. Now please leave.'

'I'll leave all right,' said Wriste. 'But he's coming with me. I can see what you've been doing, beating him to a pulp with that bloody stick. Just because your bit can stand his weight better than yours.'

'I shall report you to the purser.'

'Report away.' Wriste saw that Hillier had money grasped tight at his groin. 'Oh,' he said, 'that's possible. I hadn't thought of that. Has he,' he asked Hillier, 'been giving you cabbage to let him bash you about a bit?'

'Not at all,' said Hillier, smiling truthfully. 'Nothing like that at all. He gave me this money for giving him-'

'He had it under the pillow,' organed Theodorescu. 'That's where he had it. All right, take him away.' He picked up the bathrobe from the floor and threw it at Hillier.

'Thank you so very much, Theo. That's awfully kind.'

'I'll take him away all right,' said Wriste, 'but not on your bleeding orders. Come on, old boy,' he said to Hillier as to a dog. 'Why did he have it under the pillow?' he beetled at Theodorescu. 'There's something about all this that I don't get.'

'He doesn't trust anybody,' cried Theodorescu. 'He won't go anywhere without his money.'

'He can trust me,' said Wriste, taking Hillier's hand. 'You trust me, don't you?'

'Oh, yes. I trust you.'

'That's all right, then. Now let Daddy put you to bed.' He led his charge out. Hillier smiled, just starting to drop off.


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