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Authors: Geoffrey Seed

A Place Of Strangers

BOOK: A Place Of Strangers
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A PLACE OF STRANGERS

 

By

 

Geoffrey Seed

 

 

…intelligent,
seamless and satisfyingly

complex with a whiff
of Le Carré

 

Patrick Malahide

 

 

 

© Geoffrey Seed 2012

 

 

Geoffrey Seed has
asserted his rights under

the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act, 1988,

to be identified as
the author of this work.

 

 

First published 2012
by Endeavour Press Ltd.

Every moral
problem of the slightest interest is

a problem about
who is to get hurt.

 

 

Herbert McCabe

Law, Love & Language

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to Peter
Drury-Bird

and his late wife,
Joan.

With gratitude and
great affection

 

 

 

 

Special thanks to:

The late Fred
Cleverley,
ex Winnipeg Free Press

Anne Midgett,
Washington
Post

The late Michael
Elkins, ex BBC correspondent, Israel

Anthea Morton-Saner,
James Rogers, Stephen Walters, Kate & Bob Gavron

Patrick Malahide

My wife, Ann de
Stratford

The late Zilla
Rosenberg-Amit and all those others

who resisted in their
way but are no more

 

The Author

 

Geoffrey Seed specialised in producing major TV
investigations from cocaine smuggling in Colombia and political assassination
in the Balkans to bribery and corruption at Manchester United FC and the
British State’s covert involvement in terrorism in Northern Ireland. After
leaving the Daily Mail, he worked for every leading current affairs programme –
BBC
Panorama
, Granada’s
World in Action
and the ITV series,
Real
Crime
, critically re-examining controversial murder cases. For his Channel
4 film,
MI5’s Official Secrets
, inside sources risked jail to reveal how
UK workers and dissident political activists were being spied upon. The late
Paul Foot described it as one of the seminal programmes of the 1980s.

A Place of Strangers
is Seed’s first work of fiction.
It was inspired by a tale a diplomat once told him over supper but which no
amount of air miles or research could ultimately stand up. Seed has written
about crime, terrorism and home affairs for
The Sunday Telegraph
, is
married and lives on the Welsh borders.

 

 

Prologue

 

It will take Ella Virbalis an hour and forty minutes to get
home from downtown Winnipeg where the skies are greyer than stone and there is
ice in the air.

One hundred minutes. Not long. But time enough for a man to
die an ugly death.

At 4 pm, Ella pulls on the green felt hat and thick woollen
coat she bought last week and takes Mr Wilson’s letters – stamped with the
Queen of England’s head – to Josie in the mail office then rides the clanking
wire cage elevator to the showroom three floors below.

She leaves by the store’s front entrance, waving goodbye to
the salesmen amid their walnut bedroom suites and plush chesterfields, and
walks head down against a biting prairie wind to the coach terminal on Graham
Avenue.

There is still a moment to ring Yanis from the phone booth
outside and tell him she is on her way. Yanis sounds happy enough, maybe a
little tired after his shift at the railroad depot but he tells her he’s OK.
See you soon. That is what he says. Those are his words.

Ella joins a queue of shoppers, all wrapped tight
against the weather. The Grey Goose coach draws to the sidewalk. Ella hands her
ticket to the driver. She sits on her own towards the back, counting her
blessings. When all is said and done, they are not doing badly. Immigrants
expect to work harder than most. But getting a job as a filing clerk, even for
three days a week, means they can now afford the little luxuries they had done
without before. They are even having a vacation at New Year, heading south
across the border to the desert sunshine of Phoenix.

She watches a few passengers leave at the Brunkild stop.
Then the coach heads out along Highway 3, cutting through the unrelieved plain
of wheat which bends and sways to the ends of the curving earth.

Ella gets off on Main Street in Carman – a woman of fifty
winters with the blotched pudding face of a kulak on the make and running to
fat. She passes working men coming home in heavy check shirts, parking their
Buicks and Plymouths on asphalt drives where kids play ball and jays argue in
the elms.

Yanis will be reading his
Free Press
by now... or
making her coffee or digging over his vegetables in the back yard. Rosa should
be home from school, too.

Ella walks up the wooden steps to her front porch, unlocks
the white door, newly painted, and shouts to Yanis from the hall. He does not
reply. There is no aroma of coffee brewing. And Rosa’s coat is not on her peg
either, though it is coming six.

She fills the kettle and switches on the electric stove.
There is no need but she re-arranges the plates on the shelf above then peers
over the blue gingham curtains into the yard. Yanis is nowhere to be seen. His
newspaper lies folded on the kitchen table.
Angry Khrushchev Warns The West
.
The picture of his pig’s snout of a face fills her with all the fear she prayed
they had escaped for ever.

Ella goes back into the hall and the connecting door to the
garage. That is where Yanis must be – messing underneath the car, covered in
oil, unable to hear.

The garage door is slightly open. The air comes cool to her
face and smells...
 
smells of gasoline,
maple logs, paint. There is something else, too. Something unpleasant. Drains
maybe. She cannot sure.

It is his slippers she sees first...
 
her present to him last Christmas. Plaid
slippers bought from Eatons. Imported all the way from England. Not cheap.
Those are what she sees now – Yanis’s slippers, lying untidy on the floor by an
overturned crate with empty bottles of Whitehorse beer half falling out.

Ella looks up as she knows she must. And there he is – Yanis
in his socks and dirty overalls, turning slowly from a rope looped round a
rafter and biting into the flesh of his red raw neck. His eyes are open but
blank. Urine drips from his turn-ups. He has fouled himself like a terrified
child.

Ella’s stomach heaves. Her hand goes to her mouth. She
lurches back to the kitchen. The kettle hisses steam into the room. She pulls
open a drawer and snatches the bread knife. She hurries back to the garage and
forces herself to stand on the beer crate gallows. The body sways into her,
heavy like a punch bag. His stiffening hand touches the inside of her leg with
grotesque intimacy. He stinks of death and shit and she wants to vomit but has
to stab and saw at the rope above his head till it frays and gives way and he
crumples to the concrete like a puppet.

And in the unnatural silence of that moment she always
feared might come, Ella Virbalis begins to shake uncontrollably. She is
consumed by a single dread truth she must try to keep to herself like so much
else in their lives.

Not in a thousand years would Yanis Virbalis have slipped a
noose around his own neck. This was no suicide.

Never... never... never.

 

Chapter One

 

‘Three minutes to air, studio. Three minutes.’

Even from the gallery above, McCall sensed everyone’s
edginess that night – the floor manager counting down to transmission, the tech
crew, the vision mixers in the director’s box.

A chill of unspoken menace had blown in from the slicked
black streets outside with the men now watching from the wings, jackets
unbuttoned and lumpy with guns. Only one person seemed unaffected – the Prime
Minister herself.

Margaret Thatcher commanded the still, calm centre, waiting
amid a serpent’s nest of camera cables for her cue to address the nation.
Barely a day before, she had stepped defiant from the ruins of the hotel where
she and her cabinet were meant to die by terrorist bomb. Here was Boudicca and
Joan of Arc made flesh again, gazing into her place in history, a glorious
imperatrix ranged between her people and the murdering enemies within.

‘Two minutes, everyone. Two minutes.’

McCall saw the Director General and two fawning BBC governors
have their passes checked by the same unsmiling Special Branch cop he tried
shmoozing earlier.

‘All you need to know chum is I’m the guy who shoots the guy
who shoots her. Now piss off, I’m working.’

The studio sparks glanced at the gallery clock then quickly
adjusted his lighting rig. Sound wanted a final check on Thatcher’s microphone
for level.

‘Prime Minister, would you care to say what you’ll be having
for supper?’

‘A very large Scotch.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Another one, I expect.’

‘That’s excellent, Prime Minister. Thank you.’

McCall moved back to the control box. All the monitors
displayed the same unforgiving close-up of Thatcher’s avian features... the
raptor’s eyes, the turkey neck.

‘Quiet, studio. Going in thirty seconds...’

McCall knew serious Westminster watchers who thought
Margaret Thatcher alluringly sexy. He didn’t get it. But then, McCall had no
mother so couldn’t become Oedipal.

His confusions were not put to bed so readily.

‘...and cue Prime Minister.’

*

Bea was always uneasy about going into the attics of Garth
Hall. The poorly lit rooms did not bother her any more than the steep stairs,
though the frailties of age were taking their toll. It was more the feeling of
entering a crypt, a chill reliquary where the paper remains of those long gone
were slowly disintegrating into the dust of a past waiting to claim her, too.
The buckets beneath the leaking roof had to be checked regularly or they would
overflow and ruin the bedroom ceilings beneath. But the weather was turning dry
and cold so she had nothing to empty. The gardener said they might be in for a
white Christmas.

Bea paused before leaving. There was no sound save for the
sigh of timbers shifting one against another under the imperceptible weight of
time. Her eyes took in the silt of discarded possessions and all the pieces of
furniture neither she nor Francis had wanted after they married. She opened the
drawer of a heavy Edwardian sideboard and a hundred years and more of their
family histories lay before her – copperplate letters of love and war, mutiny
and trade, each full of hopes and plans and the scuttlebutt of daily existence.
There were photographs, too, curled into tight little tubes. Bea flattened a
few out, pictures of soldiers and sailors and those who would grieve when they
did not come back.

But who these people were, what their lives had been, she
had no notion any more. Even for her, they were just memories in the minds of
those who had joined them since. Only Bea and Francis survived from their
ancient lineages of warriors and adventurers and people who did their duty,
whatever the cost.

After them – what? The days of their years, their passions
and secrets... all this would slip from recall and there would be no trace of
their passage to eternity.

She picked up one of the letters and its fibres fell to
pieces as soft as snow. What had these ghosts left behind? Maybe a fingerprint
of whoever had licked the pale red stamps in Bombay or Benares and posted their
dreams across the world to the house where they were born and their spirits
would return.

She thought of how little time was given, what little mark
we make. Then she heard her husband shouting from downstairs.

‘Bea... Bea? Where are you? Someone’s stolen my keys.’

‘I won’t be long. Give me a moment.’

‘We must lock up or else someone’ll be breaking in.’

‘No, Francis. No one’s going to break in.’

*

The Prime Minister swept out of Lime Grove studios in a
black Range Rover followed by another with tinted windows to hide the weaponry
and field dressings inside.

A researcher suggested a drink. McCall said he was whacked.
This had been a long day. They all were. But for reasons he could not fully
explain, he felt an almost agoraphobic paranoia about being in a public place
that night. It had struck him before, working in the tribal enclaves of
Northern Ireland where all was tear gas and hatred and no one knew when the
next car bomb would fill the gutters with blood and glass and waste. He wanted
only to feel safe this night. And to lie with Evie.

He drove across London to the garden flat in Highgate he had
not visited for weeks. Never phone, never ask, never tell – that was their
arrangement.

They had met in a bar, strangers adrift and remaindered for
reasons the other did not need to know. He was not required to send flowers or
give presents and Evie never questioned whether he had other such comfort women
or not. Neither felt bad about using the other.

All life becomes a convenience eventually... something warm,
something sweet, something to take away the bitterness of what happens.
Everyone needs that. But how to keep it? That was a trick McCall had yet to
learn.

He parked the Morgan and crossed the street. Evie’s light
was on. He pictured her dresser and its blue and white plates, the antique
sycamore table scrubbed till the grain stood proud. Her bed was brass and iron
with a hard mattress and soft pillows. She answered his knock in her dressing
gown. Her eyes took a moment to smile.

‘Well, well, well – ’

‘Hello, Evie.’

‘– and there’s you fresh from consorting with the Prime
Minister. I am honoured.’

‘You watched it, then?’

‘Of course. Thatcher’s a baleful old witch but she’s still a
class act.’

McCall followed her indoors. She nodded to a campaign chair.
He sat down as she went into the kitchen. A tape deck clicked on. Goldberg
Variations. That brought back their first night. She had sat across him, hands
clasped behind her head, baring breasts like bee stings and moaning till she
came. He left before dawn next day, fading from her life like they’d never met,
leaving no proof they ever had.

Evie returned with two heavy cut glass tumblers and a bottle
of rare Bruichladdich. She poured the malt then folded herself into the corner
of a low sofa.

‘So, McCall... looking for a bed for the night, are we?’

Both grinned across the bare expanse of varnished
floorboards between them. Nothing more needed saying. It was possible McCall
could get to love Evie’s smile – slightly asymmetrical but true and honest. Not
all those who had smiled at him were that. But this was risky territory. It was
safer to talk of terrorism.

‘Your lot must be on high alert.’

‘No more than usual.’

‘Come off it, Evie. The IRA just nearly murdered Thatcher
and all her cabinet.’

‘Don’t start fishing, McCall.’

‘And what about all this industrial unrest – the miners fighting
it out with the police on the streets. The country’s at war with itself.’

‘Maybe it is.’

‘So the spooks can’t just be watching from the sidelines.’

‘You know better than to ask.’

‘Just this once – ’

‘You’re crossing our line, McCall.’

‘– but Thatcher says we’re under attack. You must be hearing
something.’

‘Only the sound of a lot of people praying.’

*

Bea sat profiled at the dressing table, brushing out her
hair for the night. She tilted her head in the mirror, making the best of what
remained and pouting the lips so many men once craved to kiss... and some had
succeeded in doing.

In a silver-framed photograph by her pots of lotions and
creams was a bitter sweet reminder of all that had gone. She had been arriving
at some society reception, glittering in diamonds and fur like a movie star
with Francis on her arm in all the pomp of his military attaché’s uniform. How
glamorous and young they looked, how they shone in those dull days of post war
austerity. Even the spies of their opponents were mesmerised. Such times they
were... all bluff and double cross and combat to the death back then but lost
in unwritten history now.

Francis came in searching for a collar stud box he had
misplaced – like much else recently.

‘We are going to see him, aren’t we?’

‘Who, dear ’

‘The boy... for Christmas.’

‘Mac? Of course we are. I’ve told you already.’

‘Is he bringing Helen?’

‘No, Francis. Do try to remember these things. That’s all
over long since.’

‘Oh, right. Such a pity. She was jolly good fun, was Helen.’

She might have been – yet she had still betrayed them all.
But Helen was not the only one guilty of committing that particular crime.

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