Giles Trent came in early. I studied him with new interest. He was younger-looking than I remembered him. He took off his brown narrow-brimmed felt hat in a quick and nervous gesture, like a schoolboy entering the headmaster's study. His grey wavy hair was long enough to hide the tops of his ears. He was so tall that the club's low ceiling caused him to lower his head as he passed under the pink tasselled lampshades. He put his riding mac on the bentwood hanger and ran his fingers through his hair as if it might have become disarranged. He was wearing a Glen Urquhart check suit of the sort favoured by wealthy bookmakers. It came complete with matching waistcoat and gold watchchain.
'Hello, Kar,' Trent said to the old man seated near the radiator, nursing his usual whisky and water. Most of the members called him Kar. Only some of the older Poles who'd served with him in Italy knew that Kar was his family name.
Trent stayed at the counter where young Arkady dispensed cold snacks, the inimitable rum punch that his father was said to have invented under battle conditions in Italy, good coffee, warm beer, iced vodka, poor advice about chess and unpalatable tea. Trent took rum punch.
'Mr Chlestakov hasn't been in tonight,' the youth told Trent.
Trent grunted and turned to look round the room. I stared down at my chess problem. By resting my chin in my hand, I was able to conceal my face from him.
Trent's Russian arrived about ten minutes later. He was wearing an expensive camel-hair coat and handmade shoes. He only came up to Trent's shoulder, a potbellied man with big peasant hands and a jolly face. When he took his hat off, he revealed dark hair brilliantined and carefully parted high on the crown of his head. He smiled when he saw Trent and slapped him on the shoulder, asked him how he was, and called him 'tovarisch'.
I recognized the type; he was the sort of Soviet official who liked to show the happy friendly side of life in the USSR. The kind of man who never arrived at a party without a couple of bottles of vodka, and winked to let you know he was an incorrigible rogue who'd break any rule for the sake of friendship.
Trent must have asked him what he wanted to drink. I heard the Russian say loudly, 'Vodka. I only come here to drink my Polish friend's fine buffalo-grass vodka.' He spoke the smooth English that is the legacy of the teaching machine but lacked the rhythms that can only come from hearing it spoken.
They sat down at the table Trent had selected. The Russian drank several vodkas, laughed a lot at whatever Trent was telling him, and ate pickled herring with black bread.
There was a chessboard and a box of well-worn chess pieces on every table. Trent opened the board and set up the chess pieces. He did it in the measured, preoccupied way that people do things when they are worrying about something else.
The Russian gave no sign of being worried. He bit into his fish hungrily and chewed the bread with obvious delight. And every now and again he would call across the room to ask old Jan Kar what the weather forecast was, the rate of exchange for the dollar, or the result of some sporting fixture.
Old Jan had been in a Russian prison camp from 1939 until he was released to go into the General Ander's Polish Corps. He did not like Russians, and the answers he gave were polite but minimal. Trent's Russian companion gave no sign of recognizing this latent hostility. He smiled broadly at each answer and nodded sympathetically to acknowledge old Jan's flat-toned negative answers.
I got up from my seat and went over to the counter to get another drink - coffee, this time - and from there, keeping my back towards them, I was able to hear what Trent was saying.
'Everything is slow,' said Trent. 'Everything takes time.'
'This is just a crazy idea that comes now into my head,' said the Russian. Take everything you have down to the photocopying shop in Baker Street, the same place you got the previous lot done.'
The Russian had spoken quite loudly and, although I didn't look round, I had the feeling that Trent had touched his sleeve in an effort to quieten him. Trent's voice was softer. 'Leave it with me,' he said. 'Leave it with me.' The words came in the anxious tones of someone who wants to change the subject.
'Giles, my friend,' said the Russian, his voice slurred as if by the effects of the vodka. 'Of course I leave it with you.'
I took the coffee that Jan's son poured and went back to my table. This time I sat on another chair to keep my back turned to Trent and the Russian, but I could see them reflected faintly in a fly-specked portrait of General Pilsudski.
I continued to work my way through one of the Capablanca's games against Alekhine in the 1927 championships, although I did not understand the half of it. But by the time Capablanca won, Trent and the Russian had disappeared up the stairs and out into the street.
'Can I join you, Bernard?' said old Jan Kar as I tipped my chess pieces into their box and folded my board. 'I haven't seen you for years.'
'I'm married now, Jan,' I said. 'And I never was much of a chess player.'
'I heard about your dad. I'm sorry. He was a fine man.'
'It's a long time ago now,' I said.
He nodded. He offered me a drink, but I told him I would have to leave very soon. He looked round the room. It was empty. Everyone was in the room next door watching a game that had developed into a duel. 'Working, are you? It was that Russian, wasn't it?'
'What Russian?' I said.
'Insolent bastard,' said Jan Kar. 'You'd think they wouldn't go where they're not welcome.'
That would seriously limit their movements.'
'I'll keep it to myself, of course. And so will my son.'
'I wish you would, Jan,' I said. 'It's very delicate, very delicate.'
'I hate Russians,' said old Jan.
Giles Trent's house was one of a terrace of narrow-fronted Georgian-style dwellings erected by speculative builders when the Great Exhibition of 1851 made Chelsea a respectable address for senior clerks and shopkeepers. Near the front door - panelled and black, with a brass lion's-head knocker - stood Julian MacKenzie, a flippant youth who'd been with the Department no more than six months. I'd chosen him to keep an eye on Trent because I knew he wouldn't dare ask me too many questions about it or expect any paperwork.
'He arrived home in a cab about half an hour ago,' MacKenzie told me. 'There's no one inside with him.'
'Just on the ground floor - and I think I saw some lights come on at the back. He probably went into the kitchen to make himself a cup of cocoa.'
'You can go off duty now,' I told MacKenzie.
'You wouldn't like me to come in with you?'
'Who said I'm going in?'
MacKenzie grinned. 'Well, good luck, Bernie,' he said cheerfully, and gave a mock salute.
'When you've been with the Department for nearly twenty years and the probationers are calling you Bernie,' I said, 'you start thinking that maybe you're not going to end up as Director-General.'
'Sorry, sir,' said MacKenzie. 'No offence intended.'
'Buzz off,' I said.
I had to knock and ring three times before I could get Giles Trent to open the door to me. 'What the devil is it?' he said before the door was even half open.
'Mr Trent?' I said deferentially.
'What is it?' He looked at me as if I was a complete stranger to him.
'It would be better if I came inside,' I said. 'It's not something we can talk about on the doorstep.'
'No, no, no. It's midnight,' he protested.
'It's Bernard Samson, from Operations,' I said. Why the hell had I been worrying about Giles Trent recognizing me in the club? Here I was on his doorstep and he was treating me like a vacuum-cleaner salesman. 'I work on the German desk with Dicky Cruyer.'
I'd hoped that this revelation would bring about a drastic change of mood, but he just grunted and stood back, muttering something about being sure it could wait until morning.
The narrow hall, with Regency striped wallpaper and framed engravings by Dutch artists I'd never heard of, gave onto a narrow staircase, and through an open door I could see a well-equipped kitchen. The house was in a state of perfect order: no nicks in the paintwork, no scuffs on the wallpaper, no marks on the carpet. Everything was in that condition that is the mark of those who are rich, fastidious and childless.
The hall opened onto the 'divine' living room that Tessa had promised. There was white carpet and white walls and gleaming white leather armchairs with brass buttons. There was even an almost colourless abstract painting over the white baby grand piano. I could not believe it was an example of Giles Trent's taste; it was the sort of interior that is designed at great expense by energetic divorcées who don't take cheques.
'It had better be important,' said Trent. He was staring at me. He didn't offer me a drink. He didn't even invite me to sit down. Perhaps my sort of trench coat didn't look good on white.
'It is important,' I said. Trent had taken off the tie he'd been wearing at Kar's Club, and now wore a silk scarf inside his open shin. He'd replaced his jacket with a cashmere cardigan and his shoes with a pair of grey velvet slippers. I wondered if he always dressed with such trouble between coming home and going to bed, or whether his informal attire accounted for the delay before he opened the door to me. Or was he expecting a visit from Tessa?
'I remember you now,' he said suddenly. 'You're the one who married Fiona Kimber-Hutchinson.'
'Were you at Kar's Club tonight?' I said.
'Talking to a member of the Russian Embassy staff?'
'It's a chess club,' said Trent. He went across to the chair where he'd been sitting, placed a marker in a paperback of Zola's Germinal, and put it on the shelf along with hardback copies of Agatha Christie and other detective stories. 'I speak to many people there. I play chess with anyone available. I don't know what they do for a living.'
'The man you were with is described in the Diplomatic List as a first secretary but I think he's a KGB man, don't you?'
'I didn't think about it, one way or the other.'
'Didn't you? You didn't think about it? Okay if I quote you on that one?'
'Don't threaten me,' said Trent. He opened a silver box on the table where the book had been and took a cigarette and lit it, blowing smoke in a gesture that might have been repressed anger. 'I'm senior in rank and service to you, Mr Samson. Don't come into my home trying the bullyboy tactics that work so well with other people of your own sort.'
'You can't believe that being senior in service and rank gives you the unquestioned right to have regular meetings with KGB agents and discuss the merits of various photocopying services.'
Trent went red in the face. He turned away from me, but that of course only drew attention to his discomfiture. 'Photocopying? What the hell are you talking about?'
'I hope you're not going to say that you were only going to photocopy chess problems. Or that you were meeting that KGB man on the orders of the D-G. Or that you were engaged on a secret assignment for a person who's name you are not permitted to tell me.'
Trent turned and came towards me. 'All I'm going to tell you,' he said, tapping my chest with his finger, 'is to leave my house right away. Any further conversation will be done through my lawyer.'
'I wouldn't advise you to consult a lawyer,' I said in the friendliest tone I could manage.
'Get out,' he said.
'Aren't you going to tell me that you'll make sure I'm fired from the Department?' I said.
'Get out,' he said again. 'And you tell whoever sent you that I intend to take legal action to safeguard my rights.'
'You've got no rights,' I said. 'You sign the Act regularly. Have you ever bothered to read what it says on that piece of paper?'
'It certainly doesn't say I'm not entitled to consult a lawyer when I have some little upstart force his way into my house and accuse me of treason, or whatever it is you're accusing me of.'
'I'm not accusing you of anything, Trent. I'm just asking you some simple questions to which you are supplying very complicated answers. If you start dragging lawyers into this dialogue, our masters are going to regard it as a very unfriendly reaction. They are going to see it as a confrontation, Trent. And it's the sort of confrontation you can't win.'
'Grow up, Trent. Even if you went to law and did the impossible and got a verdict against the Crown so that you were awarded damages and costs, do you think they'd give you your job back? And where would you go to find another job? No, Trent, you've got to put up with being quizzed by menials like me because it's all part of the job, your job. Your one and only job.'
'Wait a minute, wait a minute. There are a couple of things I want to get straight,' he said. 'Who says I've been in regular contact with this Russian diplomat?'
'We've got this funny system in interrogation - you wrote one of the training books, so you'll know about this - that it's the interrogator that asks the questions and the man being investigated that answers them.'
'Am I being investigated?'
'Yes, you are,' I said. 'And I think you are as guilty as hell. I think you're an agent working for the Russians.'
Trent touched the silk scarf at his neck, loosening it with his fingers, as if he was too hot. He was frightened now, frightened in the way that such a man could never be by physical violence. Trent enjoyed physical exertion, discomfort and even hardship. He'd learned to deal with such things at his public school. He was frightened of something quite different: he was terrified that damage was going to be done to the grand illusory image that he had of himself. It was part of my job to guess what frightened a man, and then not to dwell on it but rather let him pick at it himself while I talked of other, tedious things, giving him plenty of opportunity to peel back the scab of fear and expose the tender wound beneath.
So I didn't tell Trent about the misery and disgrace that would be waiting for him. Instead I told him how simple it would be for me to drop this investigation, and destroy my notes and papers, in exchange for having him walking into my office the next morning and making a voluntary statement. In that way there would be no investigation; Trent would report an overture made to him from a Russian diplomat and we would brief him on how to react.
'And would the Department allow that? Would they agree to it being something that starts with a report from me?'
There was, of course, no report to change or destroy. I hadn't mentioned my conversation with Tessa to anyone at all. I nodded sagely. 'Use your imagination, Trent. What do you think the D-G would prefer? If we discover you in contact with the Russians, we've got a disaster on our hands. But if you can be described as one of our people feeding stuff to the Russians, we've got a minor triumph.'
'I suppose you're right.'
'Of course I'm right. I know how these things work.'
'You'd want me to continue my meetings with him?'
'Exactly. You'd be working for us. You'd be making a fool of him.'
Trent smiled; he liked that.
After I'd been through my piece a couple of times, Trent became friendly enough to press a couple of drinks on me and thank me for my kindness and consideration. He repeated my instructions earnestly and thankfully, and he looked up to wait for my nod of approval. For by now - in about an hour of conversation - I had established the role of father-confessor, protector and perhaps saviour too. 'That's right,' I said, this time letting the merest trace of warmth into my voice. 'You do it our way and you'll be fine. Everything will be fine. This could even mean a step up the promotion ladder for you.'
What wife, at some time or other, has not suspected her husband of infidelity? And how many husbands have not felt a pang of uncertainty at some unexplained absence, some careless remark or late arrival of his spouse? There was nothing definite in my fears. There was nothing more than confused suspicion. Fiona's embraces were as lusty as ever; she laughed at my jokes and her eyes were bright when she looked at me. Too bright, perhaps, for sometimes I thought I could detect in her that profound compassion that women show only for men who have lost them.
I'd been trying to read other people's minds for most of my life. It could be a dangerous task. Just as a physician might succumb to hypochondria, a policeman to graft, or a priest to materialism, so I knew that I studied too closely the behaviour of those close to me. Suspicion went with the job, the endemic disease of the spy. For friendships and for marriages it sometimes proved fatal.
I'd returned home very late after my visit to Giles Trent and that night I slept heavily. By seven o'clock next morning, Fiona's place alongside me in bed was empty. Balanced upon the clock-radio there was buttered toast and a cup of coffee, by now quite cold. She must have left very early.
In the kitchen I could hear the children and their young nanny. I looked in on them and took some orange juice while standing up. I tried to join in the game they were playing but they yelled derision at my efforts, for I'd not understood that all answers must be given in Red Indian dialect. I blew them kisses that they didn't acknowledge and, wrapped into my sheepskin car coat, went down into the street to spend fifteen minutes getting the car to start.
Sleet was falling as I reached the worst traffic jams, and Dicky Cruyer had parked his big Jag carelessly enough to make it a tight squeeze to get into my allotted space in the underground garage. Don't complain, Samson, you're lucky to have a space at all; Dicky - not having fully mastered the technique of steering - really needs two.
I spent half an hour on the phone asking when my new car was going to be delivered, but got no clear answer beyond the fact that delivery dates were unreliable. I looked at the clock and decided to call Fiona's extension. Her secretary said, 'Mrs Samson had an out-of-town meeting this morning.'
'Oh, yes - she mentioned it, I think,' I said.
Her secretary knew I was trying to save face; secretaries always guess right about that kind of thing. Her voice became especially friendly as if to compensate for Fiona's oversight. 'Mrs Samson said she'd be late back. But she'll phone me some time this morning for messages. She always does that. I'll tell her you called. Was there any message, Mr Samson?'
Was her secretary a party to whatever was going on, I wondered. Was it one of those affairs that women liked to discuss very seriously or was it recounted with laughter as Fiona had recounted to me some of her teenage romances? Or was Fiona the sort of delinquent wife who confided in no one? That would be her style, I decided. No one would ever own Fiona; she was fond of saying that. There was always a part of her that was kept secret from all the world.
'Can I give your wife a message, Mr Samson?' her secretary asked again.
'No,' I said. 'Just tell her I called.'
Bret Rensselaer liked to describe himself as a 'workaholic'. That this description was a tired old cliché didn't deter him from using it. He liked clichés. They were, he said, the best way to get simple ideas into the heads of idiots. But his description of himself was accurate enough; he liked work. He'd inherited a house in the Virgin Islands and a portfolio of stock that would keep him idling in the sun for the rest of his days, if that was his inclination. But he was always at his desk by 8.30 and had never been known to have a day off for sickness. A day off for other reasons was not unusual: Easter at Le Touquet, Whitsun at Deauville, the Royal Enclosure in June and the Dublin Horse Show in August were appointments marked in red pencil on Bret's year-planner.
Needless to say, Rensselaer had never served as a field agent. His only service experience was a couple of years in the US Navy in the days when his father was still hoping he'd take over the family-owned bank.
Bret had spent his life in swivel chairs, arguing with dictating machines and smiling for committees. His muscles had come from lifting barbells, and jogging around the lawn of his Thamesside mansion. And one look at him would suggest that it was a good way to get them, for Bret had grown old gracefully. His face was tanned in that very even way that comes from sun reflected off the Pulverschnee that only falls on very expensive ski resorts. His fair hair was changing almost imperceptibly to white. And the spectacles that he now required for reading were styled like those that California highway patrolmen hang in their pocket flap while writing you a ticket.
'Bad news, Bret,' I told him as soon as he could fit me into his schedule. 'Giles Trent is coming in this morning to tell us just what he's been spilling to the Russians.'
Bret didn't jump up and start doing press-ups as he was said to have done when Dicky brought him the news that his wife had walked out on him. 'Tell me more,' he said calmly.
I told him about my visit to Kar's Club and overhearing the conversation, and that I'd suggested that Trent report it all to us. I didn't say why I'd visited Kar's Club or mention anything about Tessa.
He listened to my story without interrupting me, but he got to his feet and spent a little time checking through his paperclip collection while he listened.
'Three Russians. Where were the other two?'
'Sitting in the corner, playing chess with two fingers, and saying nothing to anyone.'
'Sure they were part of it?'
'A KGB hit team,' I said. They weren't difficult to spot - cheap Moscow suits and square-toed shoes, sitting silent because their English isn't good enough for anything more than buying a cup of coffee. They were there in case the flashy one needed them. They work in threes.'
'Is there a Chlestakov on the Diplomatic List?'
'No, I invented that part of my story for Trent. But this one was a KGB man - expensive clothes but no rings. Did you ever notice the way those KGB people never buy rings in the West? Rings leave marks on the fingers that might have to be explained when they are called back home, you see.'
'But you said that in the club members' book they are all described as Hungarians. Are you sure they are Russians?'
'They didn't do a Cossack dance or play balalaikas,' I said, 'but that's only because they didn't think of it. This fat little guy Chlestakov - a phoney name, of course - was calling Trent "tovarisch". Tovarisch! Jesus, I haven't heard anyone say that since the TV reruns of those old Garbo films.'
Bret Rensselaer took off his glasses and fiddled with them. 'The Russian guy said, "This is just a crazy idea that comes into my head. Take everything down to the photocopying shop in Baker Street . . ." ?'
I finished it for him: ' ". . . the same place you got the previous lot done." Yes, that's what he said, Bret.'
'He must be crazy saying that in a place where he could be overheard.'
'That's it, Bret,' I said, trying not to be too sarcastic. 'Like the man said, he's a KGB man who acts upon a crazy idea as soon as it comes into his head.'
Bret was toying with his spectacles as if encountering the technology of the hinge for the first time. 'What's eating you?' he said without looking up at me.
'Come on, Bret,' I said. 'Did you ever hear of a Russian making a snap decision about anything? Did you ever hear of a KGB man acting on a crazy idea that just came into his head?'
Bret smiled uneasily but didn't answer.
'All the KGB people I ever encounter have certain well-engrained Russian characteristics, Bret. They are very slow, very devious and very very thorough.'