'I thought,' said Roper reproachfully, 'you were the man who was bringing us some coffee.'
'There was a man,' said Wriste. 'His carrying of coffee made him easier to hit. I may have hit him too hard. One always expects Russian skulls to be tough, but one forgets that the Soviet Union comprises many ethnic types. There must be some very delicate skulls, I should think, in a citizenry so various and far-flung. However, this man is sleeping – perhaps for ever, who knows?-in a bower of the most delicious roses. Red roses, Mr Roper.' He smiled.
'How do you know about red roses?' asked Roper.
'A gentleman called Theodorescu – Mr Hillier knows him well – has a Xerox copy of your autobiography. A work of no great literary merit, Mr Roper, but factually it is not uninteresting. One of the facts that Theodorescu has not, despite his collecting zeal, yet collected is the fact of my identity and office. I cleaned his cabin and found many enlightening things there. As for your autobiography, Mr Roper, I took the opportunity of photostatting some of the later pages. That business of the red-rosed martyrdom was touching but not relevant to my purpose. My purpose was to understand better the reason for what I have to do. I don't like being a mindless instrument. I like to know why the target chosen is the target chosen.'
'What's all this,' Hillier asked Roper, 'about an autobiography?'
'I admire you, Mr Hillier,' said Wriste. 'You should by rights be gaping at my transformation, unable to say anything at all. I admire you as I admire Mr Theodorescu -you're both tough-minded gentlemen not easily surprised. I think perhaps I shall have some small opportunity of admiring Mr Roper before Mr Roper too is laid among the red roses. He, like you, Mr Hillier, seems undisposed to tremble at my gun. And, talking of guns, be good enough, Mr Hillier, to unbuckle that belt and let it drop to the floor.'
'If I don't?'
'If you don't I shall inflict a painful, though not lethal, wound on Mr Roper here. That wouldn't be fair, would it?' Hillier undid the belt and let it fall. Wriste scooped it towards himself with his foot and then bent swiftly, his own gun-point ticking between Hillier and Roper, to draw the Tigr from its open holster and then ram it into his left raincoat pocket. He smiled warmly and said: 'We might as well all be seated. A man has a right to a certain minimal comfort before transacting a painful task, as, indeed, have the men who complete the predicate of the transaction.' Hillier sat; Wriste sat; Roper remained seated; one bed only was empty. Hillier studied Wriste. The voice had changed to suit the measured pedantry of his language, which was not unlike that of Mr Theodorescu. There was, thought Hillier, always something of the schoolmaster in the secret agent. The patrician tone that Wriste additionally shared with Theodorescu was not, however, always found in schoolmasters. Wriste's Harrovian tie now seemed no longer a fake. Had he been to songs with Sir Winston Churchill, wondering, as he sang, what Sir Winston had saved the West for? Wriste now wore teeth. They were the finest false teeth that Hillier had ever seen. They were not merely irregular, they were gapped towards the left upper molars, there was a careful spot of decay on a lower canine, an upper incisor carried a glint of gold.
'Well,' said Hillier, 'it seems I was throwing my money away.'
'It wasn't going to be any use to you, Mr Hillier, not where you're going. Where are you going, by the way? Is there anything after death? I often attempt to engage in an eschatological discussion with what I euphemistically term my patients. Most seem frightened of something, else why should they (as they do, believe me, most of them) blubber so? One doesn't blubber for the loss of life – a few more slices of smoked salmon, an hour more of sun, a session of wick-dipping (forgive the vulgarity: it reminds me of burnin'g the candle at both ends), a few more wine-bubbles up the nose. Perhaps all of us who are engaged in this sort of work – international intrigue, espionage, scarlet pimpernellianism, hired assassination – seek something deeper than what most people term life, meaning a pattern of simple gratifications.'
'I could have done with some coffee,' said Roper.
'I'm truly sorry about that,' said Wriste. 'No viaticum before the journey. But I think Mr Hillier might be allowed one of his shocking Brazilian cigars. Light up, Mr Hillier, rejoicing in the steadiness of your hand. To me the tremor is reserved: I can never approach that moment of truth unmoved.'
Hillier smoked gratefuly. The rain had eased. He felt a peculiar peace though many regrets, the chief of which was about Clara. If he was going to be shot he was not going to be shot just yet: this interim was most precious, all responsibility put off, the ticking seconds essential drops of life's honey, the sweet gold of pure being. He looked almost gently on Wriste. And, of course, something would intervene to scotch the act; something always did. Oneself did not die; that, like the very quiddity of otherness, was for others.
'If you're thinking, Mr Hillier, that there will be a last-minute intervention of salvatory forces, I beg you to put off that hopeless, or hopeful, notion. There were three guards. I have dealt with all of them. In the hotel the junketing of scientists is at its height. There are exhibitions of frog-dancing. There is talk of bringing down the chambermaids to join in the revels. I gather there is something to celebrate – isn't that so, Mr Roper?'
'Breakthrough on the Beta Plan,' mumbled Roper. 'Look here, I think I've got a right to know what's going on. So,' he afterthought, 'has Hillier here.'
'You're quite right, you have a right. I'm here to kill both of you. Totally, let me make this clear, without personal vindictiveness. I am, as I said, an agent – or, in deference to the myths of your shared religion, let me say an angel – of death. I shoot people for money, but I like to find out why (here's a Shakespearian touch for you) their names are pricked. That lends an intellectual interest. Now, Mr Roper, your death is a sort of pendent to Mr Hillier's. My primary assignment is to kill Mr Hillier. I was paid not in roubles nor in dollars but in sterling – good crisp notes I carry on my person at this moment. Who do you think paid me that money, Mr Hillier?'
'I can't even guess.'
'You can guess, but you don't wish to. The revelation would be too shocking. Nevertheless, let us have the totality of the moment of truth. You're going to die very bitterly, Mr Hillier. To be betrayed by the very people you have given your all to, in whose service you have grown gnarled and scarred and seared. That S on your body was a cruel touch. I've worked for Soskice. It's typical of the man. Still, I think you were adequately avenged. One less man for me to work for. I don't know, though. Others are coming up. That man Grimold promises well. The game goes merrily on.'
'Do you mean,' asked Hillier, beginning to feel that he could feel sick, 'that my own people instructed you to kill me?'
'I personally wasn't instructed. Panleth, our agency -delightful name, isn't it? Cosy, somehow. Kill all pan-germs with Panleth – Panleth passed on the assignment. It seems to me, having studied the matter, that there's neither wantonness nor ingratitude in the desire of your late friends to have you killed. I should think you were even given a sporting chance. Naturally, I had a look at that letter I handed to you when you embarked at Venice. I couldn't be bothered to decipher it, but I guessed at its content. I should think there was an apology there for what was coming. There are gentlemen in England now abed, sleeping sound in the knowledge that the decent thing was done. You should by rights have spent your voyage puzzling out that message, but you decided to dedicate it to a sort of fling. A last fling, as it happens. The pattern of things proves you were right to do that. I would have got you anyway, though not perhaps here. You've had a final rich spoonful of life. Gorblimey, sir,' he added, in his steward voice, 'that's a bit of a bleedin' understatement.' And, in the Harrow voice, 'You can be thankful for that.'
'I still want to know why,' sweated Hillier.
'I think I can give the answer,' said Roper. 'You know too much.'
'Too much for what}'
'You're being deliberately obtuse,' said Wriste. 'Too much to be let loose into a retirement. Mr Roper is perfectly right. I should imagine you've already sold information to Theodorescu. That money on your naked lap -what a stupid story you told me about a wager. Your generous hand-outs to me, incidentally, seem to attest a sense of guilt. Anyway, were you to live you'd sell more information or even give it away. That you were brought up a Roman Catholic was always one thing against you. You left your Church, but you'd probably go back to it in retirement. A sort of hobby, I suppose. As with Mr Roper here, that old loyalty tended always to militate against another. You could never be wholly patriotic. Add to this your known sensuality – itself a kind of substitute for faith-and you have, I should have thought, enough grounds for a quiet and regretful liquidation. Think about it, Mr Hillier. Put yourself in the position of those English gentlemen who, when they're not on the golf-course, worry about security.'
Roper seemed less fearful than interested. He frankly leered his admiration of Wriste's lucidity of exposition. He said: 'Where do I come into this?'
'A pendent, as I told you. It was considered, for obvious reasons, better that Mr Hillier should be given his quietus on Soviet soil. You, Mr Roper, were never thought of as more than a mere pretext for getting Mr Hillier here. This will be unpalatable, I know. You are – and I have this on the highest authority – not wanted back in England.'
Roper, despite all he had spat out at Roper-burning England, now seemed to tamp down indignation. 'I'm not having that, you know.'
'Come now, think it over. You've already done your best work. Scientists, like poets, mature early and decay early. It is young scientists that are wanted. The stock fictional image of the grey-haired doddering genius being smuggled in or out is totally false. Your value to the Russians is mostly symbolic. The British are more concerned at the moment with luring Alexeyev over to the West than with reclaiming you.'
'Alexeyev?' went Roper. 'But Alexeyev's only a bloody kid.'
'It's the bloody kids that are needed,' said Wriste. The locution, in Wriste's pedantic tones, carried connotations of sacrifice. Ritual, it was all ritual. 'As for the moral implications of your defection, it's only a vocal minority in Parliament that's crying out for your head. A treason-trial would spill too much muck into the headlines. That muck has to be buried, not spread.'
Roper went crimson. Hillier asked: 'What muck?'
'I don't know the whole of it,' said Wriste. 'Those passages of Mr Roper's autobiography that I've read-'
'How did he get hold of that?' asked Roper in red anger. 'That bugger you mentioned – Theo something-or-other-'
Wriste shrugged. 'Apparently you've had a double agent snooping in your vicinity. Perhaps a lab-boy or room-cleaner or something. He sold a Xerox copy of your completed chapters to a man who sold it to a man who sold it to a man who sold it to Mr Theodorescu. Mr Theodorescu is voracious for information. Of course, a typescript – top copy or carbon – is valueless in any market other than the literary. It's holographs that are needed. Though to the student of human motivation, the chronicler of that specific kind that produces the traitor, your typescript isn't without interest. The trouble is that anybody with a moderately inflamed imagination could have written it. And your typescript seems to leave off, as though with fright, on the threshold of the really significant revelation. I should be interested to know why you embarked on this task at all.'
'It was suggested to me,' said Roper, mumbling again. 'Clarify my ideas. Examine myself. It was an exercise. But you still haven't said why-'
'I think all that's clear now, isn't it? The client I have to serve in respect of you, Mr Roper-'
'Look,' said Roper, 'I'm sick to death of this bloody mister. I'm Doctor Roper, got it? Doctor, doctor, doctor.' It was like a stoic cry out of Jacobean drama: / am Duchess of Malfi still.
'Alas, Mister Roper, your doctorate was taken away from you. It was publicly announced, I gather, but you personally evidently weren't informed. The senate of the university concerned announced that they'd discovered evidences of plagiarism.'
'That's a bloody lie.'
'Probably. But it was in the national interest that you should seem to be a fraud and a fake. The British public could sleep sound. A man of straw had gone over to the Russians. The news of your dedoctorisation, if that's the right term, never appeared in the Daily Worker, and certainly Pravda wouldn't mention it. You remained ignorant.'
'So did I,' said Hillier. 'A great deal of what you're saying grows more and more suspect.'
'As you please. But you, Mr Hillier, began to opt out of the modern world long before you sent in your resignation. You read mostly menus and the moles oil whores' bellies. All this is unimportant. What I say now is far from unimportant. A certain cabinet minister, Mr Roper, be- came agitated when he learned, at a little dinner party in Albany, that you were to be forcibly repatriated. About the autobiography he knew nothing. I deduced that he feared revelations which would affect him privily if you should be brought to trial. I can guess at the nature of the revelations. If only you had gone further in your autobiography I should know absolutely how this high personage was involved in your career. But no matter. It was important, so far as he was concerned, that you should not return to England. He had made use of Panleth before. It was a matter of trying to make the last government fall. The government's majority was down to two; the member of a certain marginal constituency was known to be suffering from heart disease; Panleth arranged for the progress of that ailment to gallop to a premature consummation. When he learned, in the strictest confidence, that you, Mr Roper, were coming home, he contacted Panleth again. Hence my two assignments, their respective provenances quite independent, united only by place. Panleth is an efficient agency. It looks after its clients and consults their convenience. It takes only ten per cent.'
'Well,' said Roper, more cheerfully, 'you don't have to do the job, do you? You're going to kill Hillier, and H illier won't be taking me-' He nearly said 'home'.
'Ah, that's not it.' Wriste head-shook sadly.
'You've got your money,' said Hillier. 'You said so. You don't have to kill either of us.'
'I've got some money,' said Wriste. 'Not all. You paid me at the beginning of your trip, Mr Hillier, and you were presumably going to pay me at the end. So with these two jobs. Before I can receive the balance – from Department X and Mr Y alike – I have to furnish evidence of the satisfactory fulfilment of the assignments. What I normally take back is a finger-'
'Yes. For the fingerprints. Most of my patients are fingerprinted men. Agents and top-level scientists and so on, men with detailed dossiers. Strange, once you have a dossier you seem potentially to have committed a capital crime. This sort of punishment-' He waved his gun. 'It always hovers. When you've finished that cigar, Mr Hillier, the hawk must swoop.'
'You could,' said Roper, 'cut off a finger and let us go.' He spoke as dispassionately as if his body were a tree to be pruned.
Wriste again shook his head, more sadly than before. 'I've never yet performed an act of other than terminal surgery, though the request has been made often enough. No, gentlemen both, I have my honour, I have my professional pride. If either of you were ever to appear, finger-less but otherwise whole, walking the world smiling, my career would be at an end. Besides, there's a man called the Inspector.'
'Oh, my God,' groaned Hillier.
'Yes, the Inspector. Nobody knows his name, I doubt if anyone's ever seen him, I sometimes doubt whether he really exists. He is perhaps a mere personification of Honour. But it's convenient to believe in him. No, no, gentlemen, it's no good.' He took from an inside pocket a plush case, rather finely made, and clicked it open. 'I've never had occasion to use this before,' he said. 'See, there are grooves for two fingers. I have another case, rather well-worn, for the single digit. One man I know, very ambitious, uses a cigar-case, but that seems to me to be crude. I had this specially made by a man in Waltham-stow, of all places. I said it was for the accommodation of amputated fingers, and he laughed.'
Hillier could not drag any more smoke from his Brazilian. He had five more in his pocket: what a waste. 'Well,' he said. Roper, as if to ensure that Wriste's token should not disgrace him, though dead, was busily biting his nails.
'Strange, isn't it?' said Wriste dreamily, pulling back the safety-catch. Hillier's eyes were drawn to the weapon; if he and it were to engage in the ultimate intimacy, he had at least to know its name. It was a Pollock 45, beautifully looked after. Wriste wTas a real professional, but there were elements of corruption in him. This personal interest in his victims would be the death of him, Hillier thought. Strange,' repeated Wriste, 'that in a minute or so you will both be vouchsafed the final answer. Religion may be proved all nonsense or else completely vindicated. And the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope of Rome cannot in the least profit from your discovery. Top secret. Locked drawers. A safe with an unbreakable combination. There may be a quattrocento heaven, there may be a Gothic hell. Why not? Our aseptic rational world does not have to be a mirror of ultimate reality. Hell with fire and vipers and mocking devils for ever and ever and ever. At this moment I always survey my victims with a kind of awe. The knowledge they are going to possess is the only knowledge worth having. Would either of you gentlemen like to pray?'
'No,' cried stout Roper. 'A load of bloody nonsense.'
Hillier swallowed on a vision of Clara. He had, even though retrospectively, defiled that image. His whores and victims marched, in swirling mist, over an endless plain, their formation S-shaped, pointing at him with three-fingered hands, lipless, noseless, only great eye-lamps staring. 'A form of words,' he muttered. 'No more.' He knew he didn't really believe that. Roper was a better man than he. 'Oh my God,' he recited, 'I am sorry and beg pardon for all my sins and detest them above all things-'
'Bloody nonsense,' cried Roper. He seemed determined, like Kit Marlowe, to die swearing. 'Cunting balderdash.'
'-Because they deserve Thy dreadful punishment, because they have crucified my loving saviour Jesus Christ-'
'Bumfluffing bleeding burking tripe. When you're dead you're finished with.'
'-And most of all because they offend Thine infinite goodness. And I firmly resolve by the help of Thy grace never to offend Thee again-'
'That's one resolution that will be fulfilled,' delivered Wriste.
'-And carefully to avoid the occasions of sin.'
There was a timid knock at the door of the little hut. Hillier's heart leaped. Never pray, someone – Father Byrne?-had once said, for the thing of immediate advantage. Wriste joined Roper in swearing, though more softly. Then he said: 'This is awkward. This I had not expected.'
'You talk too much,' said Roper, 'that's your trouble. You could have got this job over nicely if it hadn't been for all that yak.' It seemed a sincere reproof.
'A third,' said Wriste. 'Innocent, perhaps. A pity. Nothing in it for me. Totally gratuitous.' Brooding on the economics of death he pointed his gun at the door. 'Come in.' he called.
The door opened. A boy stood there, draped against the dying rain in a big man's jacket.
'Well,' said Wriste, in his steward's accent, 'if it ain't little Mister bloody Knowall. I'm truly sorry about this, son, but I don't see any way out. Come in, right in,' he gun-waved, using the patrician tones. 'How did you know we were here?'
Roper frowned on Alan Walters as though he had come to a class of his without registering for it. Alan said: 'A bit of a whiff of cigar-smoke. Not much, just a bit. I lost you.' He looked apologetically at Hillier. 'I lost you on the road. And then I looked in the hotel, but it's all filthy drunkenness there.'
'Clever boy,' purred Wriste. 'That stepmother of yours will be pleased to have you out of the way. I wonder if it would b`e prudent to seek a small emolument.'
'I was going to put her out of the way,' said Alan. 'This seems good territory for killing people. But then I thought: first things first. I always knew you were a phoney.'
'Oh, naturally. You know every thing, don't you? Including the correct postures for p'ed'erastie gratification.'
'That had to be,' said Alan. 'It was the only way. There are some awful men in the world, you included. But you weren't clever enough. You told me you'd spent the war in an Australian prison. And the next minute you were talking about having an FFI when you came back off leave. I always knew you weren't to be trusted. You'd never do anything without getting money for it first.'
'I'm getting no money for this,' said Wriste. 'Take your hands from underneath that outsize jacket. Join them together. Close your eyes. Say your little boy's prayers. You can precede these gentlemen. The antipasto, the Italians call it. Theodorescu would like that. Come on, boy, we've wasted enough time as it is.'
'You bloody neutral,' cursed Alan. 'You're going where all the neutrals go.' Dull fire spat through the jacket, leaving a smoking hole. In great-eyed surprise Wriste grabbed, rebus, his wrist, cracked bone with blood taking breath to fountain out. He watched, almost with tears, his gun drip from his fingers and fall without noise on one of the massage-cots. Alan now had the Aiken, silencer and all, in the open. 'Now try this,' he said. He aimed at Wriste's pained surprise through the fumes of frying smoked bacon. He thudded fire at the nose and got the right eye. The eye leaped out on its string as in a surrealist montage. The socket leered as the blood prepared to charge, and then the whole face was black fluidity mounted on a falling body. The mouth, independent of the smashed brain, cried 'Cor' in Cockney. The left fingers, like rats in shipwreck, clawed at a cot, seeking to save themselves. Wriste's going down was leisurely, noisy, the body's indulging itself in its closing scene. There was a crack and the sound of spatter from the trousers. Then Wriste was only a thing.
'I think I'd better be sick,' said Alan. 'It's time somebody was sick.' He went and stood, like a naughty boy, in the corner. His shoulders heaved as he tried to throw up the modern world.