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On Espionage and Prophecy (or How to Accidentally, but Wholly, Fall in Love With a Soho Bookseller)

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(Posted with permission from saunteringadversaries on tumblr)

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A bell jingled merrily against the gloomy backdrop of early-morning London after a night of heavy bombing, it’s joyful sound cutting through the grey smoke and fluttering ash as a man stepped out into the street and locked the double wooden doors behind him, shutting out the sound.

The sign above the door read ‘A.Z. Fell & Co. Antiquarian and Unusual Books’ in faded gold across weathered burgundy; nothing special or indeed interesting compared to Soho’s other bright and fascinating storefronts. In fact, one could say it looked a little out of place and even out of time – very much like the man who picked his way across the cobbled street, avoiding debris and litter that had appeared overnight.

He could have been anywhere in age between thirty-five and fifty, depending on the light and the time of day, of the expression on his face, or his mood. His hair was white-blonde like that of an elderly gentleman but his pale eyes were young and full of intelligence and inquisitiveness; there were frown lines deeply etched into his forehead, yet his smile (when one was graced with it) was full of joy and the innocence of youth. Nobody could really be sure of his age because nobody had ever bothered to ask.

His light clothing in the pale grey morning proved he was no great follower of fashion, and yet he was immaculately and appropriately attired from his fawn fedora that matched his overcoat in both colour and texture, to his tartan bowtie and down to his very sensible tan Oxfords.

Mr A.Z. Fell walked swiftly down Lexington Road, a brown paper bag holding the remnants of the week’s stale bread clutched in his hands as he walked the sixteen-minute route to St James’ Park, passing through the early morning foot-and-vehicular traffic of Piccadilly; along Waterloo Place  and narrowly avoiding being hit by a double deck red bus across Pall Mall. Finally he reached the metropolitan oasis that was St James’ Park and he had to marvel, as he did every morning after a night of heavy bombing, of the resilience of the British people; how the Germans bombed homes and shops and monuments night after night and how Londoners emerged from the air raid shelters each morning, rolled up their sleeves, and went about their days as normal.

Well, somewhat normal.

The ducks were happy to see him as he approached the pond and sat on the end of a solitary park bench; all swimming with relish as the paper bag rustled in his hands and he brought out his crust, tearing it into pieces and throwing it into the water to a symphony of elated quacking. It was a blessing that this beautiful space of greenery remained intact considering what the rest of London looked like these days. Whole neighbourhoods had been obliterated by German shells but here, the ducks remained blissfully oblivious to the destruction of the city.

A light cough behind his left shoulder made him start and he turned in surprise to find a small, golden-haired woman in a navy suit and a bottle green feathered hat standing behind him.

“Mr Fell?” she inquired.

His eyebrows shot up. He wasn’t entirely unused to being approached by strangers, but that was a product of the time they lived in these days and the fact that he was terribly good at acquiring the unusual and hard-to-find. However, these sort of people were usually male, intimidating, and often brandishing weapons. They were definitely never so pretty.

He made a noise of affirmation and the woman smiled.

“My name is Captain Rose Montgomery of British Military Intelligence,” she said, a hand dipping into her purse and pulling out a folded identification paper which she handed to him for inspection.

It seemed legitimate.

“British Military Intelligence,” he repeated breathlessly as he scanned the paper.

Captain Montgomery’s name was there, right next her photograph and official-looking stamp. It was the first time he’d ever been approached by the Intelligence Services and he swallowed the wave of panic that began to rise in his throat. Some of his activities regarding the acquisition, buying, and selling of oddities had not exactly been one hundred percent legal over the last few years. He decided to play it calm.

“How could I possibly be of assistance, Captain?”

The young woman’s pillarbox-red lips spread into a warm smile as she slid onto the bench next to him and lowered her voice, conspiratorially.

“MI5 have been tipped off about a pair of German agents in London,” she told him. “Nasty pair, hell bent on acquiring certain items for Hitler.”

“Is that so?” he replied, keeping his voice low.

“Books,” Montgomery said. “Specifically, books of Prophecy. “Given your profession and your…exceptional abilities…we have reason to believe they will try to contact you, Mr Fell.”

The revelation surprised him greatly, more so that the Intelligence Services were keeping tabs on him and his activities both above and below board, rather than the thought of Nazis seeking him out and hiring his service.

He looked away from Captain Montgomery and stared very hard at the ducks.

“I don’t know what you think you know about me,” he replied, icily, “but I would never betray my country! I’m a patriot!”

“I know that, Mr Fell,” Montgomery intoned, soothingly; a comforting hand lightly brushing his arm. “We’re not implying that you’d do anything to aid the enemy or betray Britain. You’re a good man, Mr Fell, which is why I’m asking for your help.”

If he had been a better study of human character, he’d have had the sense to hear alarm bells.

He had always been the solitary sort, belittled by his siblings and ostracised for his odd ways throughout childhood and into adulthood, and had found it better for everyone if he kept to himself as much as possible. People never bothered him unless it was to pay him to find a rare book or such like, and he’d convinced himself that he was happy that way. But when war had broken out, he’d found himself desperate to contribute in some way. He’d flirted for one brief moment with joining up, but he knew he wasn’t in the slightest suitable soldier material – too strange, too soft…too bookish. He would never have survived basic training never mind a day in active service, and he was too fond of food and comfort and the secure warmth of his cluttered, overstuffed bookstore.

He’d resigned himself to being on the sidelines; of being a useless bystander whilst those braver than him did all the fighting but now here he was, on a park bench with a bonafide secret agent, offering him a chance to make a difference.

If he’d been less lonely, less good-hearted, and less patriotic he would have at least taken the time to consider the situation, to realise that any spy worth their salt would have looked into him and his family and his history, and known how to use it to their advantage. He might have figured out he was being manipulated.

Instead, his heart began to float and hope soared high as he realised he could finally be of some use to his country. It was all he’d ever really wanted to do since Chamberlain had declared war in 1939.

“Tell me how I can serve the King, Captain Montgomery,” he said, pale eyes alight with excitement.

 

Several paces away, there was a faint, barely-audible click of a camera disguised as a silver cigarette case as a man in a flat cap and tweed jacket made a show of struggling to open it for the benefit of the general public. The couple on the park bench didn’t notice a thing as the man clicked the catch on the case a few more times and then opened it, revealing a handful of real cigarettes. He casually selected one and slipped the sliver case back inside his jacket pocket. He walked past them, lighting up without giving them a second glance as he made his way back out of the park and up the mall towards head office.

Mr Crowley was going to be very interested with this development.

 

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Anthony J Crowley had never really been successful in anything much before the war except causing trouble. He’d always broken too many rules, asked too many questions, and hung around the wrong sort of people – he’d accidentally fallen in with a gang in his late teens and although was never a truly active member, he’d learned some useful life skills such as how to fire a pistol, pick a lock, dig up information on people for blackmailing purposes, and of course, how to manipulate people into doing what you wanted.

When the war broke out, Crowley found himself in a spot of bother with His Majesty’s Government and had been offered the choice of going to prison or putting his skills to good use for the British Security Service. Crowley had chosen the latter and very quickly had proven to be a very capable spy.

The British Intelligence Services were working on something new these days – finding German agents active on British soil and eliminating the threat. The objective was to turn as many agents as possible into doubles, working for the British whilst also working for the Nazis; passing along false information the British Government fed them and obtaining real information from the other side. It was a tricky venture, but Crowley excelled at it.

At this particular moment, he was gathering information of a cell of German agents operating in West London – a nasty threesome who had been intimidating, blackmailing, and murdering local bookshop owners in their pursuit of acquiring Books of Prophecy for Hitler. It was bloody ridiculous, Crowley thought - murdering perfectly decent Londoners for a load of prophetic tripe. Hitler really was cracked in the head, getting people to pull crap like this.

Crowley pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and sighed heavily, closing the paper file he’d been studying. He must have been in the office for most of the night, ignoring air raid sirens and the screaming of shells being dropped from overhead bombers and the distant explosions. It wasn’t as though he could have taken his work with him into a shelter anyway, so he’d blocked out the noise and cracked on with his research. Crowley had no idea what time it was as he pushed himself back from the desk and crossed to the window, roughly shoving aside the blackout curtain and cracking the window open.

The acrid smell of burning wood and explosive powder assaulted his nose, which immediately scrunched up defensively. The scent was all too familiar these days, always hanging about in the air with a habit of settling into one’s clothing if they were outside for too long. Honey-coloured eyes surveyed the street above from the basement-level window, taking in the people bustling about on the pavement in the grey morning light. Crowley surmised it was still early.

He turned sharply as the door opened and another agent entered, still dressed for the outdoors in tweed jacket and flat cap, and holding another paper folder.

“What have you got?” he asked, motioning towards the file.

The agent crossed the tiny basement office in three strides and handed Crowley the file containing six perfectly in-focus photographs.

“This morning’s reconnaissance on Nightingale, sir,” was the response as Crowley opened the file and held the first photograph up to the light.

‘Nightingale’ was the code name for the particular operation he was working on – the Nazi spy ring of two men and one woman. She was in the photographs – a small dark-haired and well dressed woman who lured in poor unwitting sods by claiming to be working for a government agency before handing them over to her confederates to intimidate. In the photograph she was sitting next to a man Crowley surmised was her next mark.

The next photograph showed the man’s face, round and innocent, fluffy white hair neatly tucked under his hat and neat as a new pin. Crowley’s eyes soaked in every detail he could see.

“Do we know who this is?” he asked.

The agent shook his head.

“She started following him from Lexington Street. She followed him…I followed her.”

Crowley nodded and turned back to the file, scanning through the other photos that showed the progression of their conversation; the bag of bread in the man’s hand that he was feeding to the ducks. Crowley felt a pang of pity for the poor bugger. He looked far too nice to get mixed up in all of this.

“Good work,” he said aloud, sliding the photographs into the inside breast pocket of his jacket before pulling it off the coat stand and shrugging it on. “I’ll look into this one myself. I could do with a bit of a walk. Lexington you said?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“I’ll back track from there and see what I can find.”

Fastening his jacket buttons with one hand, he smoothly knocked his fedora onto his head and tipped it at a fashionably jaunty angle before ushering the agent out of his office and locking the door behind him. The harsh morning light and acrid smoke stung his eyes as he walked up the basement steps and onto the street. Reaching into his pocket again, Crowley took out a pair of dark glasses and slipped them on with practiced ease before stepping into the flow of traffic and disappearing into the commuting crowds.

 

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Mr A. Z. Fell, Purveyor of Antiquarian and Unusual Books glanced out of his shop window again and frowned. He’d seen him again, he was sure of it – a shady character in black with dark glasses he was convinced was following him, but every time he glanced back for a second look the man vanished like smoke in the wind. It had been going on for a couple of days now and it was very unsettling.

In truth he’d been on edge since meeting Captain Rose Montgomery the other day, the British Intelligence Officer who had approached him and asked for his help in catching a couple of Nazi spies. It was all terribly exciting and he’d been very willing to assist, but now paranoia was starting to seep in around the edges with the appearance of this mysterious gentleman. Perhaps it was a member of one of London’s various gangs trying to intimidate him – it had happened before, several times in fact. Ruffians, the lot of them.

With a sigh, he turned from the window just as the shop bell gave a joyful little ring to signal the arrival of a customer and his stomach plummeted as the man in black stepped through his door.

“Who are you?” he demanded, hating the evident tremor and the higher pitch in his voice as he spoke. “What do you want?”

He felt himself backing away, further into his shop and into the comforting labyrinth of bookcases. He could hide if he needed; lose this ruffian who was advancing on his with snakelike grace and run to safety somehow.

The man in black stopped and pulled his dark glasses down to the end of his nose. He’d half expected them to be yellow with black slits and it was an almost pleasant surprise to see they were actually the colour of warm honey. The black-clad man raised a dark eyebrow.

There was nothing around that could be used as a weapon to defend himself; no fire poker or heavy silver candlestick; only books and he wasn’t about to throw one of those. He’d die first.

“Anthony J Crowley,” the man in black drawled in an obviously London accent. “Mr Fell, I presume?”

Crowley looked at him over the rim of his dark glasses, studying him curiously.

“You presume correctly,” he replied, stiffly; beginning to feel a little silly for backing up against a bookcase. “What do you want, Mr Crowley?”

Crowley smirked and pushed his dark glasses back up his nose before casually leaning against the nearest bookcase in an easy movement, an elbow propped against the old worn leather of a most rare and precious bible.

“Is there a first name to go with that?”

There was a heartbeat’s silence.

“Aziraphale,” he answered, quietly with all the dignity he could muster in the moment.

Crowley looked at him over the rim of his glasses again.

“Aziraphale…Fell? Oh, that’s unfortunate,” he murmured. “Very biblical – I can see why you never ever use it…”

Aziraphale cleared his throat, testily.

“I asked what you want, Mr Crowley,” he repeated, a little more steadily.

“Oh, just a bit of a chat really,” Crowley replied, lightly. “Run into any Nazis, recently?”

Aziraphale’s heart stopped for precisely one second, frozen in horrified shock before slamming hard back into action, knocking the breath out of him.

“I…I beg your pardon…?”

“No?” Crowley continued, not missing a beat. “What about pretty young women, claiming to work for the British Intelligence Services?”

Aziraphale stilled, trying to get his breathing under control as his stomach threatened to evacuate his breakfast.

“Who are you, sir?” he demanded testily.

Mr Crowley looked like he was thoroughly enjoying Aziraphale’s discomfort, his smirk widening.

“I told you. Anthony J Crowley – British Security Service.”

Aziraphale stared at him in complete disbelief. Anthony J Crowley looked more like a gangster than an Intelligence Officer, with that fedora tilted at a rather rakish angle over dark auburn hair, and those dark glasses that looked ridiculous on a dreary grey day like this, and snakeskin shoes. It was impossible.

“I demand to see your identification papers,” Aziraphale said, straightening his cream waistcoat.

Crowley moved with confident grace, reaching into his pocket and extracting an identification card between his forefinger and thumb, waving it gently at Aziraphale.

This also looked very legitimate – Anthony J Crowley’s name next to his photograph, minus the hat and dark glasses, and an official government stamp.

He practically threw it back into Crowley’s hands, his mind now a swirling pool of confusion and doubt.

“What in God’s name is going on?” Aziraphale whispered.

Crowley grinned at him as he slipped his identification back into his pocket and pushed himself up from the bookcase.

“Come on,” he replied gently. “I’ll treat you to lunch and tell you exactly how you can keep yourself from going to jail for treason.”