Read Our Game Online

Authors: John le Carre

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General

Our Game

BOOK: Our Game
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John Le Carré

Our Game

He who thinks of the consequences

cannot be brave.

Ingush proverb

Who gathers knowledge

gathers pain.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

If I were living in the Causcasus,

I would be writing fairy tales there.

Chekhov, 1888

ONE

LARRY WENT OFFICIALLY missing from the world on the second Monday of October, at ten minutes past eleven, when he failed to deliver his opening lecture of the new academic year.

I am able to set the scene exactly because it was not so very long ago, in the same dreary Bath weather, that I had dragged Larry down to see the wretched place for the first time. To this day I have the most accusing memory of the brutalist slab barracks closing in on him like the walls of his new confinement. And of Larry's ever youthful back walking reproachfully away from me down the concrete canyon like a man going to his nemesis. If I had had a son, I thought as I stared after him, this was how it would feel to be dumping him at his first boarding school.

"Hey, Timbo," he whispers over his shoulder, the way Larry can speak to you from miles away.

"Yes, Larry."

"This is it, is it?"

"This is what?"

"The future. Where it all ends. Leftover life."

"It's a new beginning," I say loyally.

But loyal to whom? To him? To me? To the Office?

"We have to scale down," I say. "Both of us do."

The day of his disappearance was by all accounts equally depressing. A cloying mist envelops the hideous grey university campus and breathes a sticky pall over the alloy-framed windows of Larry's grimy lecture room. Twenty students sit at desks facing the empty lectern, which is of a particularly violent yellow pitch pine, very scratched. The subject of his lecture has been chalked on the blackboard by a mysterious hand, probably a doting pupil's. Karl Marx in the Supermarket: Revolution and Modern Materialism. There is a bit of laughter. Students are the same everywhere. On the first day of term they will laugh at anything. But gradually they fall quiet and content themselves with smirking at each other, peering at the door, and listening for Larry's footsteps. Until, having allowed him the full ten minutes' grace, they self-consciously put away their pens and notebooks and clank along the rocking concrete pavement to the canteen.

Over coffee, the freshers are duly appalled by this first experience of Larry's unpredictability. This never happened to us at school! How will we catch up? Will we be given notes? Oh, God! But the hardened ones, Larry's fans, only laugh. That's Larry for you, they explain happily; next time round he'll bat on for three hours and you'll be so hooked you'll forget lunch. They speculate about what might have kept him: a bumper hangover, or an outrageous love affair, of which they ascribe any number to him, for in his mid-forties Larry is still a lover just to look at: he has the lost-boy appeal of a poet who never grew up.

The university authorities took an equally relaxed view of Larry's reluctance to appear. Common Room colleagues, not all from the friendliest of motives, had reported the offence within the hour. Nonetheless the administrators waited for another Monday, and another no-show, before mustering the energy to telephone his landlady and, on receiving no satisfaction from her, the Bath police. It was a further six days before the police called on me: a Sunday, if you can believe it, ten o'clock at night. I had spent a wearisome afternoon escorting a coachload of our village elderlies on a trip to Longleat, and a frustrating evening in the winery wrestling with a German grape press, which my late uncle Bob had christened The Sulky Hun. Nevertheless, when I heard their ring my heart leapt while I pretended to myself that it was Larry, hovering on my doorstep with his accusing brown eyes and dependent smile: "Come on, Timbo, fix us a bloody big Scotch, and who gives a damn about women anyway?"

Two men.

It was pelting rain, so they had huddled themselves into the porch while they waited for me to open up. Plain clothes of the deliberately recognisable kind. Parked their car in my drive, a Peugeot 306 diesel, very shiny under the downpour, marked POLICE and fitted out with the usual array of mirrors and aerials. As I peered through the fish-eye, their hatless faces stared back at me like bloated corpses: the elder man coarse and moustached, the younger goatish, with a long, sloped head like a coffin and small, round eyes like bullet holes shot through it.

Wait, I told myself. Add a beat. That's what being calm is all about. This is your own house, late at night. Only then did I consent to unchain the door to them. Seventeenth-century, iron-bound, and weighs a ton. The night sky restless. A capricious wind snapping at the trees. The crows still shifting and complaining, despite the darkness. During the day we had had a crazy fall of snow. Ghostly grey lines of it lay on the drive.

"Hullo," I said. "Don't stand there freezing. Come on in."

My entrance lobby is a late addition by my grandfather, a glass-and-mahogany box like a vast elevator that serves as an antechamber to the Great Hall. For a moment, there we stood, all three, under the brass lantern, going neither up nor down while we looked each other over.

"This is Honeybrook Manor, is it, sir?" said the moustache, a smiler. "Only we didn't seem to see a sign at all."

"We call it the Vineyard these days," I said. "What can I do for you?" But if my words were polite, my tone was not. I was speaking the way I speak to trespassers: Excuse me. Can I help you?

"Then you would be Mr. Cranmer, am I correct, sir?" the moustache suggested, still with his smile. Why I say smile, I don't know, for his expression, though technically benign, was devoid of humour or of semblance of goodwill.

"Yes, I'm Cranmer," I replied, but preserving the note of question in my voice.

"Mr. Timothy Cranmer? Just routine, sir, if you don't mind. Not disturbing you, I trust?" His moustache hid a vertical white scar, I guessed a harelip operation. Or perhaps someone had smashed a broken bottle into him, for he had a patchy, reconstructed complexion.

"Routine?" I echoed, in open disbelief. "At this time of night? Don't tell me my car licence is out of date."

"No, sir, it's not about your car licence. We're enquiring about a Dr. Lawrence Pettifer, of Bath University."

I allowed myself a chastened pause, then a frown midway between amusement and vexation. "You mean Larry? Oh my Lord. What's he been up to now?" And when I received no answer but the stare: "Nothing bad, is it, I trust?"

"We're given to understand you're an acquaintance of the Doctor's, not to say close friend. Or isn't that correct?"

It's a little too correct, I thought.

"Close?" I repeated, as if the notion of proximity were new to me. "I don't think I'd go that far."

As one man, they handed me their coats and watched me while I hung them up, then watched me again while I opened the inner door for them. Most first-time visitors to Honeybrook make a reverent pause at this point while they take in the minstrels' gallery, the great fireplace, the portraits, and the wagon roof with its armorial bearings. Not the moustache. And not the coffinhead, who, having until now lugubriously observed our exchanges from behind his older colleague's shoulder, elected to address me in a deprived and snappish monotone:

"We heard you and Pettifer were bosom pals," he objected. "Winchester College was what we heard, no less. You were schoolmates."

"There were three years between us. For schoolboys that's a lifetime."

"Nonetheless, in public school circles, as we hear, such things make a bond. Plus you were students together at Oxford," he added accusingly.

"What's happened to Larry?" I said.

My question drew an insolent silence from both of them. They seemed to be deliberating whether I rated an answer. It fell to the elder man, as their official spokesman, to reply. His technique, I decided, was to play himself in caricature. And in slow motion too.

"Yes, well, your doctor friend has gone a bit missing, to tell you the truth, Mr. Cranmer, sir," he confessed, in the tones of a reluctant Inspector Plod. "No foul play suspected, not at this stage. However, he's missing from his lodgings and his place of work. And so far as we can gauge"—how he loved that word; his frown said so—"he's not written anybody a goodbye billy-doo. Unless he wrote you one, of course. He's not here, is he, by any chance, sir? Upstairs, sleeping it off, so to speak?"

"Of course not. Don't be ridiculous."

His scarred moustache abruptly widened, revealing anger and bad teeth. "Oh? Now, why am I being ridiculous, Mr. Cranmer, sir?"

"I would have told you at once. I'd have said, He's upstairs. Why should I waste your time, or mine, pretending he isn't here if he is?"

Again he didn't answer me. He was clever in that way. I was beginning to suspect he was clever in other ways as well. I had a prejudiced view of policemen that I was trying to unlearn at the same time that he was deliberately playing on it. Partly it was a class thing; partly it stemmed from my former profession, which treated them as poor relations. And partly it was Larry agitating in me, because, as we used to say in the Office, Larry only had to be in the same borough as a policeman to be arrested for obstructing him in his lawful duties.

"Only you see, sir, the Doctor doesn't appear to have a wife, a companion, a significant other, nobody," the moustache was lamenting. "He is highly popular with the students, who regard him as a card, but ask his colleagues in the Common Room about him, you meet what I call a blank wall, be it contempt, be it envy."

"He's a free spirit," I said. "Academics aren't used to that."

"Pardon me, sir?"

"He's used to speaking his mind. Particularly on the subject of academics."

"Of which body, however, the Doctor himself happens to be a member," said the moustache, with a cocky lift of his eyebrow.

"He was a parson's son," I said unthinkingly.

"Was, sir?"

"Was. His father's dead."

"He's still his father's son, though, sir," said the moustache in reproof.

His phoney unction was beginning to act like an insult on me. This is the way you think we ignorant coppers should be, he was telling me, so this is the way I am.

A long passage hung with nineteenth-century watercolours leads to my drawing room. I went ahead, listening to the clip of their shoes behind me. I had been playing Shostakovich on my stereo, but without conviction. I switched him off and in a show of hospitality poured three glasses of our '93 Honeybrook Rouge. The moustache murmured, "Good health," drank, and said amazing to think it had been grown right here in this house, as you might say, sir. But his angular sidekick prodded his glass at the fire in order to examine the colour. Then shoved his long nose into it and sniffed. Then took an expert bite and chewed while he peered at the exquisite baby Bechstein piano that in my madness I had bought for Emma.

"Do I detect a certain hint of a Pinot in here somewhere?" he demanded. "There's a lot of tannin, that's for sure."

"It is a Pinot," I retorted, through gritted teeth.

"I didn't know a Pinot could be ripened in England.”

“It can't. Not unless you have an exceptional site.”

“Is your site exceptional?"

"No."

"Then why do you plant it?"

"I don't. My predecessor did. He was an incurable optimist."

"What makes you say that, then?"

I mastered myself. Barely. "Several reasons. The soil is too rich, it is poorly drained and too high above sea level. My uncle was determined to ignore these problems. When other local vineyards thrived and his did not, he blamed his luck and tried again next year." I turned to the moustache. "Perhaps I might be allowed to know your names."

With a due show of embarrassment, they pushed their passes at me, but I waved them away. I too had flourished passes in my day, most of them fakes. The moustache had tried to telephone me in advance, he said, but discovered I had gone ex-directory. So happening to be in the area on an unrelated matter, sir, they decided to take a liberty and ring the bell. I didn't believe them. Their Peugeot had a London registration. They wore city shoes. Their complexions lacked the country glow. Their names, they said, were Oliver Luck and Percy Bryant. Luck, the coffinhead, was a sergeant. Bryant, the moustache, was an inspector.

Luck was taking stock of my drawing room: my family miniatures, my eighteenth-century Gothic furniture, my books—Herzen's memoirs, Clausewitz on war.

"You read a lot, then," he said.

"When I can."

"The languages, they're not a barrier?"

"Some are, some aren't."

"Which aren't?"

"I have some German. Russian."

"French?"

"Written."

Their eyes on me, all four of them, all the time. Do policemen spot us for what we are? Do they recognise something in us that reminds them of themselves? My months of retirement were rolling away. I was Operational Man again and wondering whether it showed and where the Office was in this. Emma, I was thinking, have they found you? Grilled you? Made you say things?

It is four in the morning. She is seated in her attic studio, at her rosewood kneehole desk, another extravagant gift I have bought for her. She is typing. She has been typing all night long, a pianist who has formed an addiction to the typewriter.

"Emma," I entreat her from the doorway. "What's it all for?" No answer. "You're wearing yourself out. Get some sleep, please."

Inspector Bryant was rubbing his hands straight up and down between his knees, like a man separating wheat. "So then, Mr. Cranmer, sir," he said, his smile set to invade, "when did we last see or hear from our doctor friend, if I may make so bold?"

Which was the question for which I had been preparing myself day and night these last five weeks.

But I didn't answer him Not yet. Determined to deny him the interrogator's rhythm, I favoured a leisured tone in keeping with the fireside atmosphere we were sharing.

"Now, when you say he had no companion ..." I objected.

BOOK: Our Game
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