“It’s a question of discipline, really,” Oliver Lacon was saying. “Discipline, as perfected by the Soviet machine. Rigid discipline which your recruits at Sarratt, well-trained and well-educated as they may be, lack.”
Control sat back in his chair and Connie could swear she saw his eyes roll just slightly. “Oliver,” he said, “is the minister proposing that we do away with leave? With holidays? Perhaps the nursery might convert its recreational facilities into a typing pool.”
“You mistake me,” said Lacon, who was now, Connie was gratified to see, sweating slightly. “My minister is merely concerned with the outward appearance of things. This incident in the Charing Cross Road, for instance.”
Two months on the job, Connie recalled. That’s how long Lacon had been buzzing to and fro between the Circus and his beloved minister. Two months in and now he was being confronted with a cock-up of massive proportions: Leonard Matheson, a Glaswegian embryo scalphunter, had exposed himself to two young debutantes outside a pub in Charing Cross Road quite late at night, bellowing about the Secret Service to anyone who would listen.
“It’s a mercy no one believed him,” said Control.
“We can’t know that,” said Lacon. “It’s unlikely, I grant you, but someone may have made the leap. There were two Russians and a German at the pub that night.”
Control made no visible move, and yet somehow he was sitting at attention now. “How on earth do you know that?”
Lacon bristled. “Scotland Yard took names. They were concerned that there may have been an assault. I called round this morning.” He leaned to delve into his case and Connie noted from her position against the wall that beads of sweat had collected on his scalp where the hair was thinning. He couldn’t be older than twenty-five, she mused. Fast-tracked, or genuinely, unapparently clever?
Lacon emerged from his case with a list in hand. He consulted it, oddly winded. “Vasily Eltsin and Sergei Alexandrov, both builders, and a businessman named Holger Hirsch.”
“Coincidence,” said Control, with the faint outline of a question mark.
“Scotland Yard thought so,” said Lacon.
Control grunted, and reached across his desk for the paper. Lacon relinquished it with bare relief on his face, and Connie couldn’t help but smile.
“We shall see,” said Control, and Lacon rose, obviously taking that as his cue.
“The minister will be pleased,” said Lacon. “Please do keep me informed of your progress.”
“Oh indeed,” said Control dryly.
Lacon effectively bowed his way out. “Control. Miss Sachs.”
With Lacon gone, Connie released a long-stifled chuckle. “Poor stupid Leonard Matheson,” she said. “If only he knew his whatsit was the chosen topic of conversation in Whitehall today.”
“God help us,” said Control. He glanced at the list, and passed it to Connie. “It’s probably nothing. Give it a look, but not at the expense of your other projects.”
“Glad to,” said Connie, accepting the lazily proffered paper.
Control smiled with his eyes. “Our formidable head of research.”
“That,” said Connie, “I am.”
Under ordinary circumstances, Connie would have passed this one off to someone slightly more junior and continued with more substantial work. Control had invented the job for her, after all, and it was hers to define as she saw fit. Usually this meant that she did as she pleased and relegated dull or mundane tasks to the sharper secretaries. Lacon’s piece of paper would have gone that route, were it not for George Smiley and his thousand-yard stare.
“You look like a man in need of a drink,” Connie said to George as they passed out of the Circus together later that day.
George blinked expressively and adjusted his glasses. “Do I?”
“That you do,” said Connie. “Unless you’re rushing off somewhere.”
“I’m not, as it happens,” said George. “Ann’s up country with friends.” He opened his briefcase to slip his gloves out, and Connie caught sight of a worn paperback.
“That stuff any good?”
“Utter rot, I’m afraid,” said George, fishing it out and handing it over to Connie. “And Fleming knows better, of course. But I suppose, with the Official Secrets Act and so on...”
“Quite.” Connie handed the book back, pulled her jacket a little tighter. It was unseasonably chilly for April. “Well, as Commander Bond shall decidedly not be joining us, relegated to the land of fiction as he is...”
“Yes,” said George, “you know, I think I would like that drink after all.”
It was the first pub they passed, and Connie couldn’t help but grin at the imagined image of Leonard Matheson standing in the drizzle waving his penis about. Once inside, George found them a seat against the far wall. Back to the wall, facing the door, it was all exactly as Connie thought it would be. They ordered pints and George looked down at his with disappointment. “It doesn’t travel well,” he observed, nodding the short distance across to the bar.
Connie nodded. “Crown & Eagle’s my pub ordinarily,” she said, and then she explained more or less what she was up to. George nodded. He hadn’t taken off his raincoat, but he had removed his scarf and draped it over his briefcase on the chair beside him. No one looking at him who had read Casino Royale would ever make the connection. Perhaps, Connie mused, Fleming had the right idea after all.
“I see,” said George when she was done. “Well, best of luck to you.”
“George,” said Connie, drawing out the word in the way that made shy men blush. “You’re not going to say it’s probably nothing? You’re not going to say it’s beneath my notice?”
George shook his head. “Not at all. I’m sure you have your reasons.” He sipped his pint.
After George left, Connie spoke with the barman. He didn’t remember much about the evening in question, too busy leering at the debutantes, obviously seeking an evening out of their element for the first and, now, likely, last time. He had been quite disappointed when the evening had ended with a man hauling his cock out.
He put it to Connie a little differently, but it was her profession to read between the lines.
Of Vasily Eltsin and Sergei Alexandrov, the barman could tell her nothing, but she mentioned the name Holger Hirsch and all of a sudden he became voluble.
“Him? He’s in here twice a day. Always for lunch and a drink in the evening.” He hesitated, running a hand over his mustache.
“You don’t approve?” Connie probed. “Seems to me it’s more money in your pocket.”
The barman frowned. “I didn’t fight a war so Klaus Kraut could sit in my pub and chat up...” He trailed off. “Who did you say you were again?”
Connie nodded. “Millicent Nightingale. I’m a community liaison with the Met.”
That seemed to satisfy him. “Well I don’t mind telling you, Miss Nightingale, there’s a word for a man who sits alone in a pub and gets visits from boys half his age. And it’s not a very nice word.”
“No,” said Connie, “it’s not, is it?”
“Those two Swedes what was in here that night, I didn’t like the look of them, either. They sat next to the German and didn’t say nothing.”
“Swedes?” asked Connie. There hadn’t been any Swedes on the list. “How did you know they were Swedes?”
“They told me they were, didn’t they.”
“Mmm,” said Connie. They could be Swedes, of course, that the police hadn’t noticed. Or, more likely, Vasily Eltsin and Sergei Alexandrov altering their nationality for the benefit of an unfriendly barman.
“Well, as I live and breathe,” said a voice behind Connie.
Bill Haydon was quick on the uptake, that much Connie knew. So she didn’t hesitate to turn around and say, “Well I never! How long has it been? It must have been Jenny Summers’ party when I last saw you. It’s Millicent Nightingale now, you know. Nightingale-Williamson was too long to fit on the badge.”
Bill didn’t even blink. “How wonderful to see you again. Give my best to North. Will you be seeing him tomorrow?”
“Tonight, I had hoped,” Connie said.
“Quite right,” said Bill. He glanced at the barman. “Do you know, I can’t for the life of me remember why I came in. Ah well.” And, turning, he went.
Connie met Bill an hour later at Southey’s. “You were there about Matheson, I take it?” said Bill before Connie could even remove her coat. Bill tapped the side of his nose. “Miss Nightingale.”
Connie slid into the booth opposite Bill. “Not all of us have had aliases thrust at us willy nilly. It was rather fun to be Millicent.”
“Regular tart, I’d bet,” said Bill, “Old Millicent.”
“Frustrated author,” said Connie, fixing Bill with her best disapproving stare. “A nurse during the war. She’s got a husband at home, a mother in Swansea, and a fondness for misrepresenting herself to men.”
Bill nodded. “Always give them something to lie about. You’re a natural.”
Bill already had a shepherd's pie before him, so Connie ordered the haddock. “Tuck in, before it gets cold,” she said to Bill.
“Yes, Mother,” said Bill.
Connie knew Bill. She had grown up in Oxford, after all, which was practically dripping with Bills. Bill was the sort to flirt indiscriminately, and leave discrimination for the next step. Connie was quite fond of that particular mode herself. Bill, however, erred on the side of a reputation. Bill was too smooth by half, but he was excellent company, and Connie would be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the speculation that inevitably swirled around anyone seen with Bill for more than five minutes.
Connie also considered herself Bill’s intellectual superior, one of many immoveable facts ultimately standing between them.
Connie’s haddock arrived and she allowed herself a question. “How did you hear about Matheson? I didn’t realize that was public knowledge.”
“It was hardly a private event,” said Bill, a tidy forkful of shepherd’s pie hovering above him plate. “And that close to the Circus. I’m surprised Control didn’t find out sooner, frankly. Or see it firsthand, heaven forefend. Must be distracted by something.”
“The coronation, I would think,” said Connie. “We’re already swimming in briefs and it’s months yet.”
“Right,” said Bill. “Well, it’s no great mystery. Jim told me. It’s the talk of Brixton.”
“The talk of Brixton,” mused Connie. “Is it indeed.”
One could only eat and drink so much before one had to get down to brass tacks. On the morning after Lacon’s visit, Connie cornered their newest recruit; an improbably young, half-French, swoon-worthy chap temporarily assigned to the lamplighters until Control decided what to do with him. “Guillam, it is?”
Guillam was obviously confused, backed up against the elevator, a reflex smile plastered on his face. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Goodness gracious, Guillam. Connie will be sufficient, or Miss Sachs until the public school sheen wears off.” Connie stepped back and allowed him room to breathe. “Now. Who’ve they got you running after today?”
Guillam adjusted his tie, turning the last gesture into a discreet glance down the corridor, for help presumably. Connie had to admire someone this reluctant to admit how at sea he really was. “You know, I’m not sure I’m supposed to tell you, Miss Sachs.”
“Bollocks,” said Connie, perfectly sure Guillam would have choked or spit had he had something in his mouth to choke on or spit out. “You’ve got nothing on today, because no one knows who the blazes you are yet.” She smiled, hoping to put Guillam at ease, and relishing, somewhat, her rather obvious failure. “Fortunately for both of us. Come with me.”
Guillam was also called Peter, it transpired while Connie rewound the tape of Matheson’s last debriefing. He didn’t talk unnecessarily while Connie set up her equipment, but it was abundantly clear that he detested silences.
Very well, then. Connie would give him something to talk about. With Matheson’s face frozen on the screen, Connie asked, “Do you know this man?”
Guillam nodded slowly. “We were in the same group at Sarratt. Only he was just leaving as I was arriving. He was assigned to the scalphunters, wasn’t he? What’s he done?”
The boy was sharper than he seemed. “If you haven’t heard already, I’m certainly not going to tell you. At any rate, it’s harmless and embarrassing. No, all I need from you is for you to contrive a reason to go out to Brixton. Keep your ear to the ground. And for god’s sake don’t ask any direct questions.”
Mainly, Connie spent time in her office--her lair, Bill Haydon called it, and he wasn’t far wrong--combing and recombing over everything she had on German businessmen and Russian builders. The do-gooders who maintained files upon files of well-meaning immigrants looking for work were of no use. Connie hung up, exasperated, after an unchecked twenty minutes of direct-to-the-ear drivel from a wheezy man at the East-West Friendship Organization, who was very eager to impress on Connie the reliability of their disenfranchised Russian brethren. “Stalin was a rotter, yes,” said Connie, “which may answer many questions, although not, unfortunately, mine--” before being cut off again. Eventually, she just hung up.
The hope was to find nothing untoward about the Russians or Holger Hirsch. While there was nothing Connie liked more than a full-scale investigation, Leonard Matheson’s misjudged romantic overture hardly had the feel of a distraction. If it was part of something bigger, Connie would be shocked. What was far more likely was that an innocuous, vaguely homosexual German and two Russian builders with every reason to sit down at a pub (and, finding themselves sitting next to a German, having every reason to say nothing to him) had unwittingly gotten caught up in a matter of policy scrutiny. Suspicious until proven otherwise, and it all came down to nationality. Connie minded these things less than, she knew, George did, but these were the shortcuts they must take in their business.
“Stalin was a rotter,” Connie said again, under her breath, to the files on her desk. “Gone a month, but nowhere near forgotten.”
The phone on her desk rang, a horrid, shrill sound completely unlike the rest of the Circus telephones. Connie was convinced she had been outfitted with an especially irritating one on purpose, but by whom? “Suspicion, paranoia, suspicion, paranoia,” she sang to herself to the Hallelujah Chorus, before picking up. “Connie Sachs.”
“It’s Peter,” said the voice on the other end. “Guillam.”
“Good lord, Peter,” said Connie. “Tell me you’re ringing me from a call box at the very least.”
“No, from the Brixton break room. Is that a problem?” said Guillam dryly to the sound of an ambulance speeding by him in the street.
“That’s the spirit,” said Connie.
“No one here has much to say on the subject,” said Guillam. “I spoke with Jim Prideaux--he ran one of the courses I was on at Sarratt--and he seemed to regard it as a minor embarrassment more than anything else.” Guillam made a noise that could have been a chuckle. “Apparently, there was a time when Circus personnel wouldn’t dream of exposing anything they didn’t want chopped off.”
“A sound policy,” said Connie.
“At any rate,” said Guillam. “Prideaux said Matheson never gave him cause for concern. I barely had to ask. He just sort of volunteered this information.”
“He’ll have been told.”
“He’ll have been told I’m looking into it, warned I might send someone. Never mind, Peter, you did your bit. Anything else?”
“The other scalphunters weren’t much bothered,” said Guillam. “Apparently Matheson wasn’t exactly the flavor of the month. Made comments about other chaps’ girls, the like. The impression I got was that he was a promising agent with an unsavory personality.”
Plenty of Circus personnel fit that particular bill. Perhaps it was a fuss over nothing after all.
Guillam cleared his throat.
“Very well,” said Connie. “Was that all?”
“I just want it said,” said Guillam hesitantly, and he paused as a loud car passed by before going on. “I’m happy to help ma’am--Miss Sachs--really, but I don’t think I ought to make a habit of spying on my co-workers.”
“Never fear, Peter,” said Connie. “Those days are now behind you.”
There was no point in pretending, really. If Jim Prideaux knew what Connie was up to, it was because Bill Haydon had told him. Connie couldn’t exactly bring herself to mind, or at least not mind extremely. Everyone already knew. The Circus could bend itself inside out trying to keep open secrets secret, but it was useless. Connie had seen it before, during the war, when allegiances shifted by the week and the numbers of people privy to essential information grew and diminished by the day. It had been nearly impossible to track who knew, or had known, what, and Connie had only maintained a semblance of order by giving one wall of her office over to a chart which grew increasingly mad-looking as the war ground on. Control had returned from abroad, taken one look at it, and given her a promotion. From Soviet Intelligence Analyst to Head of Research. Both made-up positions, both all hers. Connie had barely turned twenty-two when Control had enticed her from Oxford to London and planted her behind a desk in a drafty, aging, nondescript office in the Circus, but even then she knew what real secrets were, and which ones were merely stories people would prefer to keep hidden. Sometimes it still felt as if she were the only one who could tell the difference.
“Occasionally,” said Control, once, to Connie, after the war had ended and everyone was settling into this new life where veterans sat in offices and sent untested recruits to tend the networks they had spent years cultivating. “Occasionally, you will find out more than you need, or have any right, to know.”
“Yes,” said Connie, who reported to him and not to anyone else.
“I want you to tell me only what you feel I need to know,” said Control. “Sometimes it may be trivial, but it will always be relevant. Understood?”
“I have no doubt that you could dig up anything anyone asked of you.”
If he expected modesty, he wasn’t getting it. “I could, yes,” said Connie.
“We’re not saints, here,” said Control. “But, then, I don’t imagine you thought that we were. If there is something unsavory happening at an outstation, and it affects the performance of that outstation, I want to know about it. As for the rest--which native girl the resident abroad is putting it to and so forth--the less I know the better.”
It was with Control’s now more than a decade-old words running through her mind that Connie rose from her desk and sought out Bill Haydon.
Bill’s office was half of what had previously been one large room. Desultory drywall had been put up at some point during the war when events had necessitated the hiring of more secretaries. With the typing pool diminished, officers had been moved into the disused code rooms. Now Bill occupied one such room, where he and his immediate neighbor, a rather dull new chap named Percy Alleline, had a gentleman’s agreement about confidential conversations: merely ignore the sounds piping crystal clear through the drywall and all will be well.
“If you’re not going to do me the honor of pretending not to know what’s going on,” said Connie without preamble, “you may as well help.”
Bill looked up in calculated surprise. “Why, Miss Nightingale, I never thought I’d see you again.”
There was no room for a second chair in Bill’s office, so Connie sat down on the edge of his desk instead. “Listen very carefully, Sweet William. I’m not sure that you’re familiar with this particular concept, but it is a secret service.”
“One’s heard it mentioned.” Bill was leaning back in his chair--the chair itself was balanced on two legs--sipping from his beloved stained teacup. “However, as I said before--”
“It’s none of my business under what circumstances Jim told you about Matheson, or you told him about my inquiry, but surely you must see why someone less understanding than I might get the wrong idea.”
“The wrong idea,” said Bill.
“For goodness sakes, Bill, don’t make me spell it out with that clod next door listening in,” said Connie.
A muffled “I say!” sounded through the wall. Apparently the gentlemen’s agreement broke down once personal affronts started flying.
All four legs of Bill’s chair connected with the ground. “Connie, don’t be silly, I’m not trying to undermine you. Why would I? You’re one of the only ones I can stand in this wretched outfit.”
“Don’t be silly yourself,” said Connie. “Make yourself useful and hunt down Holger Hirsch for me.”
“Why not use Peter Guillam?” asked Bill, smirking. “Is that your type? Have I found you out at long last?”
It was always like this with Bill. Every single bloody conversation required more agility than Connie would otherwise be expected to muster in a week. “Just do as you’re told, for once.”
“Touched a nerve?” said Bill, he of the last word, but he did set down his teacup. “Very well. Who’s Holger Hirsch?”
“A German businessman.”
“Presumably not, since here he is and here he’s been, but one never knows.”
Bill nodded. “And his name is Holger Hirsch?”
“It’s the name he gives when he frequents Matheson’s pub at any rate.” Damn Percy Alleline and his mile-long ears and all this sulking around. Connie lowered her voice. “The barman seems to think he goes there to pick up young fellows.”
“Does he indeed,” said Bill Haydon at perfectly normal volume. “That pub? How extraordinary. The Fox, possibly. I’ve been there a time or two with my girl.”
“Right,” said Connie. “Well, it’s likely nothing, but I thought we’d best check. I’ve got all I’m going to get through orthodox channels. Short of ringing up the East German embassy with a phony accent...”
Bill nodded. “Let me see what I can do. There are still a few expatriates who owe me favors.”
The Metropolitan Police were hardly known for their accommodating nature. In her years at the Circus thus far, Connie had had mercifully few run-ins with them, but if Control was to be believed, there was nothing they appreciated less than having a bunch of spooks muscling in and demanding to view evidence. For this reason, Connie was very cautious when she showed up at the station where Leonard Matheson had been processed. She needn’t have been.
“Alexandrov and Eltsin,” the duty sergeant said. “Yes, just so, they gave their names and a flat in Shoreditch.”
Connie very nearly allowed her eyes to widen. “Your colleague said nothing about an address.”
The duty sergeant had the grace to look abashed. “Well, stupid bloody trainees, eh? Can’t live with 'em...”
Trainees. Trainees would’ve given Lacon and the minister every scrap of information they had. That’s what trainees did, always. A trainee had gotten them into this mess. Far better to be an expert, from birth almost, for whom positions are invented and to whom superiors, from time to time, defer.
Connie smiled her brightest smile. The duty sergeant visibly relaxed, and wrote down the address.
There were icons visible through the right ground floor window. Miniature Christ Pantocrators, sad-eyed saints. Down the street, there were occasional piles of Blitz rubble no one had thought to fully clear away. During the Blitz, Connie had worked through the air raid sirens, holding the sandbag protecting her files in place with her foot and studiously ignoring anyone who came in with advice or evacuation suggestions or threats. There were better ways to die, but there were far worse ones as well.
The door opened on her fourth knock. A tall man of about her own age, unmistakably Russian, wearing paint-spattered coveralls and holding a dish rag, stared at Connie, startled, as if he had been expecting someone else.
“Привет,” said Connie. “Mr. Alexandrov?”
“Sergei’s not here,” said Vasily Eltsin in moderately accented English. “May I help you?”
“Yes you may, as a matter of fact,” said Connie. “May I come in?”
“Please,” said Eltsin, and stepped aside for Connie to enter.
The sitting room whose icons Connie had already seen was modest and mostly tidy. There were two well-worn easy chairs, each with their own ashtray balanced on the arm, and a long, low sofa decorated with handmade doilies draped at intervals over the back. The place was equal parts bachelors’ hovel and maiden aunt’s paradise, and Connie was already on her way to reassurance. Connie had never come across a Moscow Center agent living like this.
Eltsin indicated the sofa and Connie took a seat. “Would you like tea?” Eltsin asked. “I’m just back from a job and I haven’t had any yet myself.”
“Yes, please, if it’s not too much trouble,” said Connie.
“One moment,” said Eltsin, and disappeared through another door.
Connie knew he wasn’t making a dash for it from the tea sounds now issuing from the kitchen; those sounds were the same the world over. The sofa bowed slightly under her weight. The whole flat had a lived-in feel. Connie contemplated what she was about to do.
When Eltsin came back with the tea, Connie was ready. “You are not asylum-seekers, then, I take it.”
Eltsin froze, and then set the tea down very slowly. “Your name, please?” He sat down a studied distance away from Connie on the sofa.
Connie went on as if he hadn’t spoken. It was a tactic she had picked up long ago, in Oxford, with her father. It was a favorite maneuver at the Circus, and when she had first arrived she had found herself immediately at home. “No, I know you’re not asylum-seekers because I called and your names do not appear on any registry. You are not Volunteer Workers. You have not applied for papers. You haven’t come to our shores through orthodox channels, you’re not legal migrants, and, until this week, no one in England was aware of your existence. You told the barman you were Swedish, but you gave the police your real names. Moreover, you gave them a true address where they could find you.” Connie smiled her grandmother’s smile. “Temporary early-onset senility? It does happen to the best of us.”
Eltsin crossed his arms. “Who are you?”
“Me?” said Connie. “Nobody. I work in an office. Call me Millicent.”
“Millicent,” said Eltsin, less than convinced. “Why are you here?”
“I want to clear things up,” said Connie. “Perhaps you do too.”
Eltsin picked up his tea and blew across the top. He took a sip, and recoiled. “I can never get the temperature right, not with these English kettles.”
“Hot is hot, I should think.”
Eltsin shook his head, put his tea down. “Millicent, since you know where Sergei and I live and since you have obviously gone to a lot of trouble to find us, may I assume that the drunken Englishman at the pub was telling the truth?”
“He’s a Scot,” said Connie, going all in.
“Ah,” said Eltsin. “He was showing the world that which the world had no desire to see. And saying more than he should, too.” Eltsin put on an odd Scots-Russian accent. “‘I’m a blooming British spy!’”
“And my coming has rather confirmed that, in your eyes,” said Connie.
Eltsin nodded. “You don’t look like a spy, but neither did he. Where I come from, you know which ones they are.”
“Really,” said Connie. “We don’t seem to have the same gift of perception.”
“You do,” said Eltsin. “You’re like us. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you believe in it. I was at Leningrad. So was Sergei, although we didn’t know each other then. One day I went to the Hermitage. There was nothing inside; all the art had been sent away. I walked around and I regretted not going when I had the chance, when I was young. I thought I was dying, you see.”
“You were wrong about that, at least,” said Connie.
“Yes, but I never did go back to the Hermitage. As I was coming out, I was struck by an awful smell. You will appreciate how rare this was--the whole city smelled of decay and now suddenly some smell was troubling me--so I followed my nose and I came upon a sight I knew to be true, but which I still have difficulty believing.”
Connie waited at Eltsin drank his tea. His hands were steady, but his knuckles curled around the mug’s handle were white. Finally: “You have heard what it was like, at that time. Perhaps I am not the first person you have talked to who was there. You know that sometimes the unspeakable...” He trailed off.
“That’s all right, Mr. Eltsin,” said Connie. “I think I’ve got the picture.”
Eltsin was wrong. He was the first person she had spoken with about this. However, there was spool after spool, reel after reel, of tape, sitting in boxes back at the Circus, and Connie had listened to them all, sharpening her Russian, noting every detail. Firsthand accounts of unimaginable things. Connie had expected a great many things of her tenure at the Circus, but learning the Russian for cannibalism had never been among them.
Eltsin had finished his tea. “You may not believe it, Millicent, but we wanted to do the right thing. The police ask you a question, and you answer it. If you know yourself to be upstanding, you need have no fear that the information will do you harm.”
Field agents must have awfully thick skins, Connie mused. Thick as anything. “Forgive me for saying so, but that strikes me as awfully naive, Mr. Eltsin. You have been hiding from the authorities all this time, you and Mr. Alexandrov, and upstanding you may be but free of secrets you most certainly are not.”
This time, Eltsin barely let her finish. “It was the German, Millicent, who sat down next to us, free as a bird, as you say. He talked to us. We had nothing to say to him. When the police came, we were relieved.”
“It would have been the first time either of us attacked someone on British soil.”
“Mmm. So, out of gratitude, you told the police your name, address, and occupation.”
“Yes.” Eltsin was unapologetic. “If that Englishman, pardon me, if that Scotsman had not created his unsightly diversion you and I would not be sitting here together today.”
"What did he say that so offended you?"
Eltsin's German accent was far better than his Scots. "'No one would know by looking at you that you won the war. Crawl back home.' This. That. The other."
Connie picked up her tea and took the first sip. It was very nearly room temperature. She hastily put it back down. “You were at Leningrad, you said. You were in the army?”
“Yes,” said Eltsin.
“And Mr. Alexandrov?”
“Yes, also in the army.”
“When did you meet?”
“After the war.”
Here Eltsin’s ready answers seemed to abruptly dry up. He fidgeted with his mug, and then raised it to his lips and downed the whole tepid mess. “You like vodka?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t be very suited to my job if I didn’t,” said Connie. One had to give a little to get a little.
The vodka was located in a narrow cupboard in the corner. The cupboard was topped with the largest icon of them all, a large, colorful Saint Catherine of Alexandria with her wheel. “You’re a religious man,” said Connie. It wasn’t a question. If he were merely an art enthusiast, there would be more variety. There would be shoddy posters from the National Gallery, perhaps sketches by Russian students or Eltsin’s own drawings. Maybe one day, funds permitting, he would start his own collection of Western art and his home would come to resemble Bill Haydon’s. But, no, here were just icons, staring at her from across the room.
Eltsin also pulled out two glasses and poured with precision. “Yes.” He handed Connie her vodka and sat beside her again. “Your health.”
“And yours,” said Connie.
The vodka went down easily. Connie savored the warmth of it before asking, “May I outline something for you, Mr. Eltsin?”
“Thank you. Let’s say the authorities find out that you and Mr. Alexandrov have been living here illegally. Let’s say that you are then deported back to the Soviet Union. With or without your icons in tow, I imagine a religious and conscientious man such as yourself, and such as I presume Mr. Alexandrov is also, would not fare well in this new climate. In fact, I know it. You would likely be escorted directly to a prison camp, at best. At worst, no one you know would ever hear from you again. Your reasons for leaving your home in the first place may have had to do with religion, political frustration, or any number of other things. Your reasons for remaining in England are compelling, and thus far you have done a very good job of refraining from putting public servants such as myself in this kind of bind. But you had to tell the police, you silly boys. And now here we are.” Connie crossed her legs and smiled. “Is that about the size of it?”
Eltsin nodded. His face was impassive.
“Look at it this way,” said Connie. “You now, by the grace of God and all your other friends,” and here she gestured at the icons, “live in the land of reciprocity. Help me, and I’ll help you.”
“You would turn us in, Millicent?” said Eltsin evenly.
“In a certain light,” said Connie, “I have no choice. My superiors are already aware of your existence. If I neglect to inform them of my findings, they will assume I am hiding something.”
“Perhaps you didn’t find us,” said Eltsin.
“That would be unrealistic,” said Connie. “I always find what I’m looking for.”
Eltsin smiled faintly. “You are not very modest, Millicent.”
Connie laughed. He was hard not to like, Vasily Eltsin, with his capable gaze and his unflappability. The perfect antidote to Circus paranoia, not that Connie herself was above indulging when the situation called for it. “No,” Connie said. “And I never have been. I am, however, quite honest. I don’t deny that I’m winding you up, trying to get something out of you and then and only then will I act on your behalf. It’s a selfish place, you’ve landed yourself in. I think, though, in your heart of hearts, you’ve wanted something like this to happen for some time. I think that’s the reason you told the policeman the truth. I think you were hoping someone like me would come along and ask you the question you’ve been dying to answer all these years.”
They both started when the door opened. Then Sergei Alexandrov, blond, lean, and just as tall as Vasily Eltsin, walked into the room.
He stopped mid-sentence--something about a contractor who didn’t show--when he saw Connie. “Hello,” he said, eyes darting from Eltsin to Connie and back again. “Do I interrupt?”
His accent was thicker and his words not as fluent. Connie guessed that Eltsin had benefited from childhood English lessons, whereas Alexandrov had had to make do with language picked up on the job. “Have a seat, please, Mr. Alexandrov. Mr. Eltsin, would you care to fill him in?”
Eltsin, without preamble, laid out the situation for Alexandrov, efficiently and in Russian. Connie was impressed by his grasp of the situation as much as by the tactics he used to calm Alexandrov and head his protests off even while finishing his explanation. Throughout, Alexandrov nodded, only asking a handful of follow-up questions. He wanted to know whom Connie worked for. “You know,” Eltsin said. “Them.” They went on.
“I see,” said Alexandrov when Eltsin was done, and he perched on the ashtray-free arm of the easy chair closest to them. To Connie he said, in English, “What is question, please?”
“It’s easy enough,” said Connie. “What did you see in Russia that you couldn’t tell anyone about?”
Alexandrov did not have Eltsin’s gift of placidity. It was immediately apparent in his expression that Connie was going to wish she had brought her tape recorder. There were years worth of stories visible in the look in his eyes. “Hard to know where to begin,” he said.
“Before you mentioned the prison camps,” said Eltsin. “You may already know what is done there, but you may not know to whom and by whom. I can tell you this. I can tell you other things.”
“Go on,” said Connie.
Eltsin shook his head. “First I want your word. You are going to help us. You will not have us sent back.”
“You have my word,” said Connie. “This information is for my own use.”
“You do not share it?”
“Yes,” said Connie, but only if it’s important. Forgive me, only if it’s relevant to current discussions. For the rest, I hold on to it, and look for connections.” She smiled. “I’m curious. Incurably so.”
Eltsin smiled back. Connie could imagine him at Leningrad, a quiet comfort to those he fought alongside.
“Wait,” said Alexandrov. “You are important? You must be important, or we tell you nothing.”
“Sergei,” Eltsin began.
“No,” said Alexandrov. To Eltsin, in Russian, he said. “You would tell her everything? I’m not opening my mouth until I know she is so indispensable to them that the Queen herself would have to be the one to sack her. I want to know her word is good. I want to know she’s safe enough to keep us safe.”
“My word is bloody marvelous,” said Connie, breaking through Eltsin’s reasoned response. “And I am bloody indispensable.”
Back at the Circus, Connie set to transferring her notes of Alexandrov and Eltsin’s testimony into a vaguely readable state. The sun was low on the horizon, and shafts of orange light lit the walls of her office. Leonard Matheson was a nobody, Connie thought to herself. Worse than nobody: by now he was being thoroughly debriefed and sacked by people who barely existed themselves.
“Holger Hirsch,” said Bill from his abrupt position leaning lazily in Connie’s doorway, “is nothing but a businessman from West Berlin in prolonged talks with a potential London distributor. I was expecting something salacious, Connie, really. I’m disappointed. All I got was a two-hour lecture on the money market and an incredibly poorly executed come-on.”
It was no surprise, really. “Thank you, Bill, all the same. It had to be done.”
“Well, he’s clear. Any luck with the Russians?”
Soon enough, everyone would know. Whenever Eltsin’ and Alexandrov’s evidence became relevant, Control would gather those who mattered and brief them. In the meantime, Connie quite liked sitting at the middle of a vast empire of information. Those days during the Blitz had been like living on a razor’s edge, but she had felt, listening to bombs drop two, three, four streets over, as if she were the only person on the planet who knew, really knew, what was going on. Nothing before or since compared. It wasn’t the Germans, or the Russians, or Matheson, or Bill, or Smiley, or poor baby-faced Guillam, or Control. It was Connie who had managed, somehow, to turn her life into her life’s work. Who would blame her for wanting to keep it to herself as long as possible? Not George. Of course not, he liked to play it close to the chest, dear man. Not Guillam, who wasn’t yet sure what he should and shouldn’t know. Not Bill, who presumably had some secrets although he made a poor show of keeping them.
And, no matter how little she wanted to admit it, there would always, now, be Alexandrov’s voice at the back of her head, urging indispensability. With every new scrap of information, she grew safer and safer. Who or what was she insulating herself from? It didn’t really matter. There was always a chance of something going horribly wrong. Connie was counting on it, in fact. Perhaps it would be like the Blitz. The thrill was in the risk. The pursuit of knowledge was risky. The day they resolved the threat would be the day they made themselves redundant.
“Nothing,” said Connie, to Bill Haydon. “There was nothing there.”