‘9, 8, 7, 6…’ the crowd chants, staring up at the giant ferris wheel expectantly. Light spirals around the great aluminium frame. A chime breaks from the clock tower and fireworks explode across the black sky. Phones are held up as though on mechanised arms, programmed to reach towards the spectacle at the first bell of midnight. Kurtz stands in this crowd, towering above most of them, a dark coat pulled around his thin frame. He takes it all in with a mild disgust, and when the music begins he turns and heads in the direction of the City. That’s when he notices the man. Both picking their way through the sea of people, he happens to look up at the same moment and makes eye contact. He’s blonde, hair lit by the backdrop of flashing lights; quite attractive and yet ultimately resigned to something beyond his control, some unspeakable fate; that’s the impression that Kurtz gets. Struck less by his beauty, which is not that remarkable, than his expression. His are sad eyes that seem to have seen too much. It makes Kurtz warm inside to look at him but it ends in all of a second and he’s off, trailing through the crowd once more; one body among a thousand others. There have been a lot of women; his job made a virtue of it; never men but Kurtz was never a man of limitations. He pushes through in wake of the stranger and manages to get alongside him. His head is down and Kurtz cannot see his face.
‘You’re nice.’ Kurtz states, and the man’s head shoots up. ‘Cold tonight. What do you make of all this?’ He spreads his arms in a vague gesture, as though to signify the whole event.
‘It’s alright, isn’t it?’ The man replies, unmoved by the compliment. He slips his phone into his pocket and stares. The drugs have sharpened Kurtz’s perceptions and suddenly he feels unnerved.
‘You’re Kurtz.’ The man says.
‘What?’ Kurtz narrows his eyes.
‘You’re Kurtz. I know you. Charley.’ The man holds out his hand. Kurtz just looks at it. His heart speeds, perhaps augmented by the drugs.
‘Who are you?’ He asks, shivering.
‘You don’t know me,’ Charley says with a mysterious half-smile. ‘I was sent to find you.’
‘Are you an angel, then?’ Kurtz stutters, regretting the words as soon as they are out. But he is beginning to feel very confused. Charley’s hair is glowing in the lights and his face is so knowledgeable somehow. He looks both young and old at once. He doesn’t believe in a god but as a wave of negativity crawls through him he fears his sins, and the music vibrates in his body and seems evil, as though it is polluting him. He puts a hand up to his eyes because Charley’s face is blurring in and out of focus.
‘You’re cold. It’s cold.’ Charley eyes him over dispassionately. ‘Let’s go somewhere we can talk.’
‘You’re from the Company.’ Kurtz suddenly realises, stepping back a little and regarding him warily. Everybody refers to it as ‘The Company’ in public - it’s protocol. ‘I was expecting someone.’ He grows lucid. ‘What is your full name? Don’t lie to me - I will know if you do.’
‘Marlow,’ Charley says. ‘Charles Marlow. I was sent to Moscow last year. But let’s talk properly. It’s probably not what you think. There’s no need to be on the defensive.’
‘No, it’s probably not what you think. I’ve heard things,’ Kurtz snaps. ‘But you want to talk? I know a place that’ll be quiet now.’ He regrets hitting on this man, this ‘Charley’, is appalled even because it would have saved him a lot of hassle that he is not quite prepared for right now. But then again. As they cross Westminster he still finds himself eyeing him up, he cannot help himself. Besides, Charley seems like he would understand.
They end up below ground, in a speakeasy where the atmosphere is smokey and jazz tinkles out of an old PA system that crackles far too often. Marlow thinks that it would be better if they hired a live pianist - there is an old piano next to the bar - but in any case he doesn’t appreciate this American sort of thing. It all sounds the same to him. He makes the drinks purchase to ensure that Kurtz does not try anything funny. It could even be that Kurtz chose this place for a reason. But although he does not come off his guard, he relaxes a little. There is no special communication, even in the slightest movement of an eye, between Kurtz and the young bartender. Marlow is good at reading people - he’s good at his job.
‘You’re concerned about I.V.O.R.Y.’ Kurtz spits, once they’ve sat down.
‘The Company is concerned about you. We had no idea if you were even alive.’
‘Concerned my arse.’ Kurtz hisses, leaning across the table. ‘I know what’s going on. Like I said, I’ve heard things. I know what they’re saying.’
‘What things?’ Marlow tries to play the diplomat. His work is full of stories of Kurtz, of course. They positively abound the building, carry more detail than even the extensive files on him.
‘I did not “go native”...’ Kurtz pauses. Before he can say anything else a man approaches. His clothing is bizarre, like a cut-up patchwork quilt, ill-fitting and not suitable for the January cold. He beams and embraces Kurtz, then starts speaking in rapid-fire Russian but Kurtz shhs him, tilting his head toward Marlow. ‘He’s in my business.’
‘How drunk you? The man asks Marlow, in broken English.
‘I’m not.’ Marlow thinks that he recognises him. A minor official at the Kremlin, but God knows what he is doing here and he looks like an expat in Thailand.
‘Then you must become so!’ The Russian cries, slamming a shot down on the table, so hard that the little plastic glass splits. ‘Shit!’
‘I can’t believe that you would come to a place like this and find a shot.’ Kurtz sounds amused. ‘You need a real drink. A good red.’ He rises and lurches toward the bar, presumably to procure one.
‘This is good man.’ The Russian says to Marlow, with his thick accent. Then he switches to his native tongue and becomes immediately more eloquent. ‘He enlarged my mind.’
It is a surprising sentiment, and Marlow stares. He supposes that the man is very drunk. It dawns on him that this is Vitaly Novak, and he cannot understand how the suited businessman, normally so immaculate and professional, looks as though he is on a gap year. He wonders at the friendliness, too. Is this because of the drinking, or does he assume that Marlow is with Kurtz on, well, whatever Kurtz has been doing?
Kurtz returns with three large glasses of red wine and hands them to Marlow and Vitaly with the air of a prophet.
‘Let’s go somewhere proper,’ He states. Marlow feels as though he should agree with whatever Kurtz suggests, just to see what all this is about. Yet his slight hesitation must show.
‘Everything that you think you know is pointless.’ Kurtz snaps, and Vitaly laughs; a manic sort of cackle.
Kurtz has been out of contact for over five years. He seemed to disappear after the initial communications established that he was inside the Kremlin, and he was presumed dead or imprisoned - or worse, a traitor.
Marlow had been from Moscow to outer regions of Siberia in search of him, after two others had come back empty-handed on the same job, but it was fruitless. There was no sign nor word of Kurtz. And now the man sits before him, this famed officer. The strongest in MI5’s suit when it came to Russian intelligence. Marlow thinks that he looks terrible, all bony and worn and pupils dilated - clearly on drugs. The professional thing to do would be to text his manager and let him know, that Kurtz is in London and that he is with him, as he was about to do earlier when he spotted him at the fireworks. But he does not. He takes another sip of wine, although he is starting to regret it. Even the slightest amount of alcohol brings up his recurrent depressive feelings. It could be unsafe to go along like this with Kurtz, but he believes that it would benefit to follow him. He needs to know what has been going on. And he feels drawn to him, the man is magnetic. He was warned about this, told to stay on guard, especially if Kurtz really had switched.
‘Let’s party!’ Shrieks Vitaly, and Kurtz smirks and downs his wine in one go, as though it is water.
‘You’re one of us. You see things.’ He says to Marlow. ‘We’ll have another drink here, and then we’ll find a real club.’
There is a trace of a Russian accent in his English.