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Authors: Brian Freemantle

Charlie M

BOOK: Charlie M
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Charlie M

Brian Freemantle

For Algy and Gerry, for so many things

(1)

Like tombstones of forgotten graves, the decayed apartment buildings in the Friedrichstrasse pooled haphazard shadows in the approaching dusk and both men expertly used the cover, walking close to the walls. Although together, they carefully avoided physical contact and there was no conversation.

They stopped just before the open-spaced, free-fire area leading to Checkpoint Charlie, the taller, younger man using the pretence of taking a light for his cigarette from his companion to gaze over the outstretched arm towards the crossing point into West Berlin. On either side of the road, the criss-cross of tank traps indicated the limits of the minefield.

‘Looks all right,' he said, shielding the cigarette in a cupped hand. He was shaking, saw Charlie Muffin.

‘It would, wouldn't it?' Charlie said dismissively.

Brian Snare managed to intrude his irritation into the noisy inhalation. The damned man never stopped, he thought.

‘There's not the slightest sign of activity,' insisted Snare. The wind drove the wispy fair hair over his face. Quickly he brushed it back, carefully smoothing it down.

‘Don't be stupid,' said Charlie. ‘Every border from the Baltic to the Mediterranean will be on full alert.'

‘Our documents are in order.'

‘So were Berenkov's. And I got him.'

Snare looked from the border to the other man, arrested by the ‘I'. Muffin had co-ordinated Berenkov's capture, probably the most important single spy arrest in Europe since the Second World War, and was frightened the credit for it was being taken away. Silly old sod. Another indication that he was past it, this constant need to prove himself.

‘Well, we can't stay here all fucking night. Our visas expire in eight hours.'

The carefully modulated obscenity sounded out of place from the Cambridge graduate. Had there still been National Service, thought Charlie, Snare would have rolled his own cigarettes in the barracks to prove he was an ordinary bloke and made up stories about
NAAFI
girls he'd screwed. No he wouldn't, he corrected immediately. The man would have used his family connections to obtain a commission, just as he was invoking them to push himself in the service. He'd have still lied about the
NAAFI
girls, though.

‘Harrison crossed easily enough,' argued Snare.

Three hours earlier, from the concealment of one of the former insurance office buildings further back in Leipzigerstrasse, they had watched the third member of the team, Douglas Harrison, go through the checkpoint unchallenged.

‘That doesn't mean anything,' dismissed Charlie. The habit of the other two men to address each other by their surnames irritated the older man, in whose world partners upon whom your life depended were called by their Christian names. He knew they used the public school practice to annoy him.

‘You mean mates,' Harrison had sneered when Charlie's anger had erupted months ago, at the start of the operation that was concluding that afternoon.

Like so many others, he'd lost the encounter, he remembered. The ill-considered retort – ‘I'd rather have a mate than a rich father and a public school accent' – had been laughed down in derision.

‘I wouldn't, Charles,' Snare had replied. ‘But that's not the point, is it? Why ever can't you drop this inverted snobbery? We'll try hard to be your chums, even though you don't like us.'

‘We've stood here too long,' warned Snare. It was his turn to cross next.

Charlie nodded, moving back into the deeper shadows. The other man's shaking had worsened, he saw.

‘The car-crossing documents are in the door pocket,' said Snare, who had driven the hired Volkswagen with Harrison from West to East Berlin a week earlier. Cuthbertson had decreed they separate to avoid suspicion, so Charlie had arrived by train. But Cuthbertson had ordered him to bring the car back.

‘We'll be waiting for you on the other side,' added Snare, attempting a smile. ‘We'll have a celebration dinner in the Kempinski tonight.'

But first they'd ring London, Charlie knew, to get in early with their account of the completed phase of the operation. His part in the affair was going to be undermined: he was sure of it. Bastards.

‘What about the rest?' demanded Charlie.

Again Snare allowed the sigh of irritation.

‘The original documents are in the car, too,' said Snare. ‘But that's almost academic. Harrison had photocopies and by now they're in the West Berlin embassy waiting for the next diplomatic pouch. That'll satisfy the court.'

‘You've got photostats, too?' insisted Charlie.

Snare looked curiously at the older man.

‘You know I have.'

For several moments they stood like foreign language students seeking the proper words to express themselves.

‘All right then,' said Charlie, inadequately. He nodded, like a schoolmaster agreeing to a pupil's exit from the classroom.

Snare's face stiffened at the attitude. Supercilious fool.

‘I'll see you at the Kempinski,' said Snare, feeling words were expected from him.

‘Book a table,' said Charlie. ‘For three,' he added, pointedly.

Abruptly Snare moved off, head hunched down into the collar of the British warm, hands thrust into the pockets, well-polished brogues sounding against the pavement. A man assured of his future, thought Charlie, briefly, turning in the other direction to walk back up Friedrichstrasse into East Berlin. Of what, he wondered, was he assured? Bugger all, he decided.

Just before the checkpoint, Snare turned, a typical tourist, raising his camera for the last picture of the divided city. Through the viewfinder, he strained to locate the retreating figure of Charlie Muffin.

It took over a minute, which Snare covered by jiggling with the light-meter and range adjustment. Muffin was very good, conceded Snare, reluctantly. The man was moving deep against the protection of the buildings again: no one from the observation points near the Wall would have detected him.

A professional. But still an out-of-date anachronism, concluded Snare contemptuously. Muffin was an oddity, like his name, a middle-aged field operative who had entered in the vacuum after the war, when manpower desperation had forced the service to reduce its standards to recruit from grammar schools and a class structure inherently suspect, and had risen to become one of the best-regarded officers in Whitehall.

Until the recent changes, that was. Now Sir Henry Cuthbertson was the Controller, with only George Wilberforce, a permanent civil servant and an excellent fellow, retained as his second-in-command. So from now on it was going to be different. It was going to be restored to its former, proper level and so Charlie Muffin was a disposable embarrassment, with his scuffed suede Hush Puppies, the Marks and Spencer shirts he didn't change daily and the flat, Mancunian accent.

But he was too stupid to realise it. Odd, how someone so insensitive had lasted so long. Snare supposed it was what his tutor at Cambridge had called the native intelligence of the working class. In the field for twenty-five years, reflected Snare, turning back towards the Wall. An amazing achievement, he conceded, still reluctantly. An exception should be made to the Official Secrets Act, mused Snare, enjoying his private joke, to enable Muffin to be listed in the
Guinness Book of Records,
along with all the other freaks.

Five hundred yards away inside East Berlin, Charlie turned from the Friedrichstrasse on to Leipzigerstrasse, feeling safe. It was important to see Snare cross, he had decided. From the shelter of the doorway from which they'd both watched Harrison go over, he observed the man approach the booth and present his passport, hardly pausing in his stride in the briefest of formalities.

Slowly Charlie released the breath he had been holding, purposely creating a sad sound.

‘Just like that,' he said, quietly. In moments of puzzlement, when facts refused to correlate, Charlie unashamedly talked to himself, enumerating the factors worrying him, counting them off one by one on his fingers.

He was aware that the habit, as with everything else, amused Snare and Harrison. They'd even used it as an indicator of character imbalance in discussions with Cuthbertson, he knew. And Wilberforce, who had never liked him, would have joined in the criticism, Charlie guessed.

‘Because of Berenkov's arrest, every border station should be tighter than a duck's bum,' Charlie lectured himself. ‘Yet they go through, just like that.'

He shook his head, sadly. So a decision had been made in that teak-lined office with its Grade One fitted carpet, bone china tea-cups and oil paintings of bewigged Chancellors of the Exchequer staring out unseeing into Parliament Square.

Tit for tat.

‘But I'm not a tit,' Charlie told the empty doorway.

Charlie sighed again, the depression deepening. Poor Günther.

But he had no choice, Charlie reasoned. It was a question of survival. Always the same justification, he thought, bitterly. Charlie Muffin had to survive, no matter how unacceptable the method. Or the way. Everyone before Cuthbertson had realised that: capitalised upon it even. But Cuthbertson had arrived with his punctilious, Armytrained attitudes and preconceived ideas, contemptuous of what might have happened before him.

But he had been clever enough to realise the importance of Berenkov, thought Charlie, tempering the disparagement. That would have been Wilberforce, he guessed, asshole crawling to ingratiate himself, showing Cuthbertson the way. Neither had had anything to do with it. But three months from now, Charlie knew, the affair would be established as a coup for the new regime. Fucking civil service.

He was purposely letting his mind drift to avoid what he had to do, Charlie accepted, realistically. Charlie's first visit on the Berenkov affair had been more than a year ago, during the days when he'd been properly acknowledged as the leading operative.

It wasn't until much later, when the potential of the investigation had been fully recognised and there had been the changes in Whitehall, that Snare and Harrison had been thrust upon him. And by then it didn't matter because Charlie had established, unknown to any of them, one of the many lifelines along which he could claw to safety, fertilising the protective association with Günther Bayer, gradually convincing the dissident student who believed him a traveller in engineering components, that one day he would help his defection.

What had happened thirty minutes before at Checkpoint Charlie meant that day had arrived.

Charlie had two brandies, in quick succession, in the gaudy cocktail bar of the Hotel Unter den Linden before calling the memorised number. Bayer responded immediately. The conversation was brief and guarded, conceding nothing, but Charlie could discern the tension in the other man. Poor sod, he thought. Yes, agreed the East German quickly, he could be at the hotel within an hour.

Charlie returned to the bar, deciding against the brandy he wanted. Drunkenness didn't help: it never did. He ordered beer instead, needing the excuse to sit there, gazing into the diminishing froth.

Did personal survival justify this? he recriminated. Perhaps his fears were unfounded, he countered hopefully. Perhaps he'd end up making a fool of himself and provide more ammunition for the two men already in West Berlin's Kempinski Hotel. And if that happened, Bayer would be the only beneficiary, a free man.

He shrugged away the reassurance. That was weak reasoning: people died because of weak reasoning.

There had been other instances like this, but it had never worried him so much before. Perhaps he was getting as old and ineffectual as Snare and Harrison were attempting to portray him. Cuthbertson and Wilberforce would be eager listeners, Charlie knew.

Bayer arrived in a rush, perspiration flecking his upper lip. He kept smiling, like a child anticipating a promised Christmas gift.

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