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'You've changed the colour of your eyes,' marvelled Clara. She had changed her clothes – cotton tartan slacks with a plain green T-shirt. Alan was still in his newspaper shirt: a headline – THIS MAN MAY KILL POLICE WARN -looked sternly at Hillier. 'You've got rid of that grey moustache,' approved the boy. 'Better. A lot better.' He folded his arms, obscuring the headline. Hillier, as tea-mother, poured. Lemon for both of them: highly sophisticated. He himself took cream and sugar. Wriste had wheeled in a fair variety of tea-foods – sandwiches, Kunzle pastries, scones, crumpets in a hot dish, a chocolate Swiss roll and a Fuller's walnut cake. 'A sandwich,' Hillier offered. 'Gentleman's Relish. Salmon. Tomato and sardine. Cucumber.'

'We don't eat bread,' they duetted in canon.

'Yes, I knew about that. You ought to try some. A new experience. A nouveau frisson. Go on, be devils.' But they wouldn't risk it; they chose sweet things, nibbling. 'The decline of a civilisation,' taught Hillier, 'is figured in the decline of its bread. English bread is uneatable. Some of the London wealthy have a bread airlift from France. Did you know that? No. The bread on ships is baked properly, not boiled. One has an image of civilisation being maintained on little ships plying from nowhere to nowhere.'

'They'd still have to have our flour,' said Alan.

'How is he?' asked Hillier.

'Plying from nowhere to nowhere. No change. She,' said Alan bitterly, 'has quarrelled with that wop type man. A kind of Norwegian type man has been teaching her to dive. Golden muscles and that.'

'Fond of men, is she?'

'She's got this one back home. That's her steady one. And Dad pretended to know nothing about it. He feels he needs to trust somebody. A wife is a person you trust.'

'Have you a wife?' asked Clara.

'No,' answered Alan. 'Nor children. He's on his own. Going around in disguises and then taking them off. That man Theodorescu told me all about you,' he said to Hillier.

'Did he?' said Hillier without fear.

'He called you a womaniser.' Clara looked interested. 'He gave me a camera as a present,' said Alan. 'A new Japanese type. A Myonichi, it's called. He said it would make an amusing hobby for me to go round recording you womanising.'

'Perhaps he's jealous,' said Hillier. 'He can't do any womanising.'

'No,' said Alan. He shifted on his chair as in slight pain. 'Or won't.' He turned to his sister in sudden contempt, 'You and your books about Sodom. Sex on paper instead of a bed.'

'It's the safest kind of sex,' said Hillier. 'Did Mr Theo-dorescu say anything else about me?'

'He didn't have much time for talking. He had to helicopter off to a takeover bid or something. But he didn't have to tell me anything really, because I know you're a spy.'

'That always seems a dirty word,' said Hillier, pouring more tea. 'I much prefer "secret agent".'

'That's what you are then?' said Clara.

'Yes. That. It's a job like any other. It's supposed to call for the finest qualities in a man. You know – bravery, skill, cunning, supreme patriotism.'

'And womanising,' added Alan.


'Why are you telling us?' asked Clara.

'He had to sooner or later. Me, anyway. He knew I knew. So,' said Alan, 'you're throwing yourself into our hands.'

'In a way, yes. I need friends. That man Theodorescu has wirelessed the Soviet police. My cover has been blown sky-high, as they say. Whatever disguise I assume I can be identified by an ineffaceable mark on my body.'

'A birthmark?' asked Clara.

'A deathmark, rather. I was most cruelly branded. It was one of my many adventures,' said Hillier modestly. He ate a cucumber sandwich.

'Wait,' said Alan. He went to the door and peered out. 'Nobody eavesdropping.' He came back. 'You're being careless. Are you sure this cabin isn't bugged?'

'Pretty sure. But it doesn't matter. I've got to land in Yarylyuk whatever happens. It means contriving something when we get there. What I mean is that I'm expected. But they know I know I'm expected. They expect me to be among the passengers, but they don't expect me to go ashore. They know I'm not a fool and they know that I know that they're not fools either. My danger will be on this ship. That's why I'm going ashore.'

'But,' said Alan, 'they will know that too. I mean, they'll always be one jump ahead.' And then: 'I always knew that Theodorescu man wasn't to be trusted. A queer smell came off his body. This ship seems to be full of spies.'

'Not full exactly.'

'But one thing we don't know,' said Alan, 'is who you're spying for. How do we know that you're not spying for the other side and that the danger comes from spies on our side who are disguised as spies on their side? Or police. Or something.' He accepted a Kunzle cake. 'That you're trying to get back to Russia with secret information and somebody working for our side is already waiting to come aboard and get rid of you?'

'Much too complicated. The whole thing could, theoretically, spiral to an apex where the two opposites embrace each other and become one, but it doesn't work like that in practice. There's a British scientist attending a conference at Yarylyuk – a man I used to be at school with, strangely enough – and my job is to get him on board and take him back to England. It's as simple as that. It's nothing to do with spying.'

The brother and sister thought that over, warily eating Kunzel cakes. Clara's eyes shone gently but Alan's were hard. Alan said: 'Where do we come into this?'

'You believe me, then?'

Clara nodded with vigour; Alan said, off-handedly: 'Oh yes, we believe you. But what do you want us to do?'

'I don't want you,' said Hillier sternly to Alan, 'to start blurting about my being a spy any more, especially when I may seem to be doing strange things. If I seem to be acting oddly, and if anybody starts to get suspicious, then it's your job to find excuses for me. I want you to be around, both of you, when I try to do what I have to do to get off this ship. Diversions. Anything. You, my boy, should be equal to contriving the most fantastic of devices.'

'You talk like one of my books,' giggled Clara nervously. 'Most fantastic of devices. In Argentina or somewhere it is. Knobs and spikes and things.'

'Keep off sex,' said Alan, 'just for five minutes, please. This is serious stuff.'

'Let's not keep off sex altogether,' said Hillier. 'You, Clara, are a girl of considerable beauty.' Clara simpered prettily; Alan bunched up his mouth and made whistling noises. 'I want you to make use of it, if need be, for diversionary purposes. The odd ogle, the provocative glance. You know the sort of thing.'

'It's not in any of my books,' she said, frowning.

'No, I suppose not. Your books all start at a stage beyond provocation.'

'Will you go in armed?' asked Alan.

'There's absolutely no point. Besides, that man Theo-dorescu stole my gun, you know.'

'I didn't know.'

'But the carrying of a gun is merely talismanic in this sort of affair. Once you start shooting you infallibly get shot.'

'Phallic,' said Clara. 'Not always,' said Alan. Both ate more cakes, thinking; they had recovered their appetites. 'Well, now,' said Alan. 'Is there anything more you want from us?'

'Yes. What we call the terminal message. If I don't return to the ship I shall want you to send this to London. A cable.' He handed over a slip of paper.

Alan frowned at it and then read it aloud, though in a whisper. '_Chairman, Typeface__. That isn't much of an address.'

'Never mind. It'll get there.'

'_Contact unmade__. Jagger. Hm. And that means what?'

'It means they've got me.'

'Death?' said Clara softly. 'It means they'll kill you?'

'I don't know what more it means except that they've got me. That's enough. Somebody may come and try to get me out. But it means the closing of a dossier. Anyway, this is my last assignment. I don't think anybody at home will really care.'

'It's a hard life,' said Alan, as though it had been his life too.

'It's the life I chose.'

'But what's it all for?' asked Clara. 'Agents and spies and counter-spies and secret weapons and dark cellars and being brainwashed. What are you all trying to do?'

'Have you ever wondered,' said Hillier, 'about the nature of ultimate reality? What lies beyond all this shifting mess of phenomena? What lies beyond even God?'

'Nothing's beyond God,' said Alan. 'That stands to reason.'

'Beyond God,' said Hillier, 'lies the concept of God. In the concept of God lies the concept of anti-God. Ultimate reality is a dualism or a game for two players. We – people like me and my counterparts on the other side – we reflect that game. It's a pale reflection. There used to be a much brighter one, in the days when the two sides represented what are known as good and evil. That was a tougher and more interesting game, because one's opponent wasn't on the other side of a conventional net or line. He wasn't marked off by a special jersey or colour or race or language or allegiance to a particular historico-geographical abstraction. But we don't believe in good and evil any more. That's why we play this silly and hopeless little game.'

'You don't have to play it,' said Alan.

'If we don't play it, what else are we going to play?

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