They were hurrying away across a piece of rough ground near Crossmaglen. You might have taken them for a couple of early fishermen, though their bags were too small to hold much tackle, and you’d wonder why their hyphenated track through the dew led away from the old bridge and not towards it. From above, as you might have seen it from a helicopter – as the soldiers shortly did – you’d assume the red Metro at the roadside was theirs. But you’d soon see it wasn’t parked, but slewed across the road, and that its bodywork was pitted and perforated on the driver’s side; its windscreen, too, crazed and punctured. It had clearly been driven by the middle-aged man whose head lay on the passenger seat, and whose brains lay next to his head.
It was at the memory of this that the younger of the two early-risers was suddenly moved to turn aside, retching in the bushes.
“Nerves,” said Donal. “You done your part.”
“First time,” said the boy, grinning in embarrassment, his eyes still watery from the sting of his bile. “First time.”
Fiona rubbed an instep and stared at the carpet. Her shoulder was hunched halfway up to her ear and she purposefully dropped it, about a minute after she’d put the phone down. It soon crept up again, as she thought back to the grey, quiet and, to all intents and purposes, anonymous man who had spoken to her last week. It had been creeping up for weeks, ever since she met Barson.
“Mrs Noone,” the quiet man had said, stepping up to her in the twilight as she walked home from the station. “My name is Fields. I’m a friend of Tony Barson. I suggest that you don’t speak to him any more. On behalf of his friends, I urge you not to.”
She’d felt suddenly chilly – as cold as now, at the news of murder – but she wanted to make him say more. It was more the reporter’s hunch than apprehension for herself that prompted her. The man who called himself Fields had had only a little to add, though, in reply to her stumbling questions. “Tony Barson is a disappointed man. His stories are not trustworthy and what’s more they might be highly dangerous, not least to himself. If you care for him, and I believe you do – ” The last sentence, reluctantly started, was left unfinished. She couldn’t decide now whether it had been an entreaty or a threat, but as she remembered that figure walking away under the cherry blossom, a vain, urgent desire came over her to assault the neat, grey-coated back.
She had absolutely nothing to show. Tony’s troubled eyes behind his glasses; his warm, Irish-tinged voice murmuring on a tape… Feeling colder still, she got the cassette and put it in the deck, then went down to Unwin’s for a half bottle of Black Bush, to keep him company. She kept her coat on when she got back. She put on the light and poured herself a large one, touched Play, sat down, and put out the light again.
Subdued voices speaking between long pauses, like people afraid of being overheard. It was the last of the conversations she had taped, the night she admitted she’d been doing it. Or the first night he stayed, in other words. The Black Bush went down in a hot-blooded wave that ran on and spent itself almost to the tips of her toes and fingers. She poured another and raised the tumbler to the empty room, to the little lights on the sound system and the hesitant, light voice that came from it. Tears ran over her upper lip as she sent a second wave after the first, wiped the dewdrops off her nose impatiently, and leaned forward to listen.
“Sure, you know, there’s only so far one like me can get in the service. You reach a level where your face doesn’t fit any more. Your voice. Just as soon as you open your mouth, you know, you’re not ‘one of us’…” The lilting voice spoke rapidly, but with many abrupt stops. She’d liked it and trusted it, taken it for a truth-telling voice the first time she heard it on the phone. It fitted the description in her ad, as did his worn, slightly frayed neatness when she saw him, waiting at a table for two in the half-empty restaurant. “IS THERE a kind and conscientious, well-read, well-travelled man who feels the need of a bright but far from dazzling, young or beautiful woman for companionship and love?”
It surprised her on their first meeting that he scarcely made a mystery of what he did. And as he told her more, she began to feel his need was, above all, simply for someone to tell a story to. That was the excuse she gave herself (though she knew full well that the old newshound nose had been tickled) when the recordings began, along with her agonisings about trust and betrayal.
Eventually she wondered, was it entirely coincidence that her urge to hear had encountered his urge to speak? Then she took her courage in both hands to tell him about the tapes. She knew now she had something to lose, and that the risk must be taken. Her heart was that far gone.
He was taken aback, certainly, and asked her to stop. But he became, if anything, more forthright still. Only now the confidences were said where she would never have desired them to be overheard, and they were mutual confidences. He began to have (she kidded him) a dossier of his own, on her. None the less precious secrets for being unsaleable.
It was earlier that afternoon, about three, when Spanker (out-of-earshot-only code for the section head) had called the suitably monikered Gray into his office. The meeting had consisted, first, of a stern reprimand and an abject apology (the only kind S. was known to accept), followed by a more equable discussion.
“Well, it can’t be helped. Do we know what she knows?”
“Only from fairly late on.”
“The headboard tapes, you mean?”
“The bedroom tapes, yes. No names, of course. But yes, in essentials she knows what Dragon’s Teeth is about. She has no substantial, documentary – ”
“I should hope not.”
There was a long pause, while the chief rotated the cold end of his cigar in the deposit of ash in a silver ashtray. Then, as usual at the painful point of his briefings, he became in turn deferential and apologetic.
“I’m sorry to land this on you, Gray.”
“No, I understand.”
“Would it be possible, do you think, to dispatch two birds with one stone?”
“Well, when is Dragon’s Teeth due to start?”
“Invite Mrs Noone to open the proceedings. At close quarters.”
“With an offer of some more tangible support?”
“That would do. The woman’s a hack, after all. She’s gullible enough, surely, to suppose – if it’s done delicately – that Barson had like-minded friends?”
“I’m sure we can manage it, sir.”
“I’m sure you can.”
Gray hadn’t made the call himself. There was always the chance she’d know his voice from their one brief conversation. There was a good fellow, a newcomer, who’d been in the Footlights and did a fair Irish accent. A touch to weigh down the balance of credibility. So he gave this fellow the script and sat back to listen.
Tony Barson had been assassinated in bandit country. There’d beeen some sort of tip-off. Before he left for Ireland he’d left something with this friend, to be given to her in case he didn’t come back. Something that would remind her of certain conversations they’d had.
He was satisfied she’d been believing. Now there remained the problem of how to line up those two birds with that one stone. A technical problem, really, the kind he had always relished.
“You see, the service is on the point of redundancy. We’re running out of enemies. So what would protect all those well-padded salaries and long careers? New enemies. Or an old enemy, perhaps, with a new campaign. And if nobody’s amenable? Well, someone’s bright idea might be to make enemies. And after all, your enemies need enemies too – they need you. They’ve got as well-padded playing their game as you have playing yours. So if you need it, well, the channels might be open for a little co-operation, a little mutual aid.”
Towards the end of the tape, into the final inches of the bottle they’d drunk that night, Tony was becoming more loquacious. But there was no one listening. In the deep torpor that follows shock, with the empty half on the carpet beside her pendant hand, Fiona was dead to the world, curled up on the sofa, as the tape whirred and clicked to a stop.
It was a brilliant early morning a week later, the fourteenth. In the bag on her shoulder she carried the key and the pink flimsy of typed instructions, still in the envelope they’d arrived in. As she walked to the Tube, the first few swallows screeked and darted overhead in an unmarked blue sky.
“The first trigger,” Deacon from Armaments had explained, “is worked by the lock. But you’ll carry this radio trigger as a back-up, in case she decides to take it away without opening it. I warn you, though, the maximum range is no more than four hundred yards, and you’ll need every inch with a device this size. I suggest you simply time her – give her, say, two minutes, then trigger it remotely. If you’re close enough to check her visually, chances are you’re too close.”
Waterloo was bustling. She headed for the Ladies. Third cubicle from the door. 8.45. Why such a busy time? Mid-afternoon would have been better.
He picked her up coming out of the Underground, watched her across the concourse, drifting a few paces in her direction to make sure she’d gone downstairs. He’d thought that dark glasses and a different coat would be sufficient disguise. She’d seen him only once before, for a minute, and at twilight. He’d worn the fawn coat then. Or was it the blue? Anyway, now he wore the grey. One hand in its right-hand pocket fingered the little switch.
She passed a woman on the stairs, and stared. Was that the intermediary? There was no flicker of a returning glance. The third cubicle was occupied. She washed her hands, then made some show of tidying herself in front of the mirror, watching the door in reflection. She caught herself, in the glass, unconscously chafing at the edge of her thumbnail with her teeth, and told herself off. The toilet flushed and a portly woman in tweed emerged, carrying a slim briefcase. She took it to the attendant’s door, and Fiona hurried to intercept her.
“I found this in one of the – ”
“Sorry. That’s mine. Silly me. I was halfway down the platform. If you don’t mind – I may still catch my train.”
The tweedy lady relinquished the case with a withering look.
She could hardly take it back to a cubicle now to open it, though there was only the attendant, a large, creased West Indian woman, to see her. Better to take it home. She took the key from her bag clandestinely and fitted it in the lock. It was the right case. She removed the key again and went back up to the concourse.
Turning, in the corner of her eye, a shade of grey, the figure of a man intent on her. Coldness between her shoulderblades, sharp as an icicle. She swung her arm with the case – where? It bounced off the lavatory turnstile with a hollow bang as she tried to sprint, a heel went from under her and she skidded headlong among Ribena cartons and cigarette butts. After the deep, almost soundless concussion, she was aware of the hiss of spurting water and screams.
Declan smacked the paper with the back of his fingers. “Ha!”
“You see that? I don’t believe that for a moment.”
“Is it a Murphy’s, Da?”
“You see that, Donal?” The old man thumped the end of his spatulate forefinger into the headline. “Would an Irishman bomb a women’s lavatory, now?”
His son was halfway to the bar. “Murphy’s, Donal,” he called, without effect. Donal was exchanging a few words with a young fellow waiting to be served.
Declan rattled the paper and ran his eyes down the columns. “Still,” he muttered, “no one killed.”