Authors: Jennie Rooney
214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2013 by Jennie Rooney
First publication 2014 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Cover photo Â© Shutterstock.com
âOh dear. I thought I got away with it.'
, aged eighty-seven,
the KGB's longest-serving British spy,
speaking to a reporter from the
upon being unmasked in September 1999
he knows the cause of death without needing to be told.
The hand-delivered note from the solicitor is brief and unemotional, enclosing details of the funeral arrangements on Friday along with a copy of an obituary from the
. The obituary describes Sir William Mitchell's early life in Sherborne, Dorset, where he contracted polio at the age of eight (she had not known that), made a miraculous recovery, and then proved himself particularly adept at Latin and ancient Greek at school. He went on to read Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge, was drafted into the Special Operations Executive during the war, and later rose to a high position in the Foreign Office, advising the British and Commonwealth governments on intelligence matters and gaining a number of honorary doctorates from various universities along the way. Apparently he was never happier than when walking in the Scottish hills with his wife, now deceased. She had not known that either.
What she had already known was this: that he would appear to die peacefully in his sleep.
She puts the article and letter on the table in front of her, her breath coming in short, sharp bursts. There is mud under her fingernails as well as on her apron, leaving smudged marks on the cream-coloured envelope. The three terracotta pots on the kitchen table are as she left them, each half-filled with patted-down soil around the geranium stem cuttings snipped from her neighbour's front garden that morning, but they seem somehow changed by the interruption, no longer delicate and victorious at having survived the English winter into January, but straggly and ill-gotten.
She thinks of the silver necklace William gave her sixty years ago, identical to the ones both he and Rupert wore: the engraved St. Christopher's charm depicting the ragged saint carrying Jesus on his shoulders across a stormy sea. She had not known what the charm concealed, having mistaken its significance for something else. There was no sign of the needle tip infused with curare, a substance chosen for its untraceable qualities, which relaxes the muscles so effectively that the lungs stop moving almost instantaneously. Death by asphyxiation. So motionless that it passes for peaceful. She would not have accepted this gift from William if she had known what it was, but by the time she read the instructions, it was too late to give it back. He had arranged it that way. He wanted her to have the option too. Just in case.
Is this what has happened? Did they finally come for him, after all these years? If they did, it can only mean that there is some new evidence, something irrefutable, to have made him believe it was not worth trying to defend himself and his reputation. Better to die than to risk the possibility of his knighthood being stripped from him, of having to endure the public recriminations and shame such revelations would bring, along with the inevitable criminal trial. And why should he endure such humiliation? His wife is dead; he has no children. Nothing to stop him.
No son to protect, as she has.
The obituary is accompanied by a picture of William as a young man, his features clear and unblemished, just as he was the last time she saw him. His eyes are directed straight at the camera, a slight smile playing on his lips as if he knows something he shouldn't. She imagines that, to the rest of the world, the mistiness of the black-and-white image might appear glamorous and full of pathos, a picture of youth in a bygone age. But to Joan it is like looking at a ghost.
They come for her later that morning. Joan is watching from her bedroom window as a long black car turns into the quiet suburban street of pebble-dashed terraces where she has lived ever since moving back to England from Australia after her husband's death fifteen years earlier. The car is out of place in this part of south-east London. She observes the man and woman as they step out and glance about them, absorbing their surroundings. The woman is wearing high heels and a smart camel-coloured mackintosh, and the man is carrying a briefcase. They stand next to each other, conferring, facing across the road towards her house.
Goosebumps rise on her arms and neck. For some reason, she had always thought they would come for her at night. She did not imagine a day like this, cold and bright and perfectly still. She watches as they cross the road and push open her front gate. Perhaps she is being paranoid. They could be anyone. Social workers or meals-on-wheels salespeople. She has sent such people away before.
The knock is loud and staccato; official-sounding. âOpen up. Security Services.'
She steps back quickly, her heart stuttering as she lets the curtain fall in front of her. Too old to run. She wonders what they would do if she does not answer the door. Would they break it down? Or just trust that she is not in, and come back again tomorrow? She could stay here until they've gone, and then she could .Â .Â . She stops. Could what? Where could she go for any length of time without arousing suspicion? And what would she say to her son about where she was?
Another knock, louder this time.
Joan clasps her hands across her stomach as the thought occurs to her that they might try to find her at her son's house if they do not find her here. Her neck feels hot at the prospect of one of Nick's boys answering the door, muddy-haired and careless in his football kit, calling out that some people have come about Granny. If Nick saw these two, in their smart clothes and black car, he would think they had come to inform him of his mother's death, and Joan feels a stab of guilt to imagine his shock at this news.
And then a greater, more terrible shock as he learns that no, this is not what they've come to tell him.
And which of those would be worse?
It is a tickling, stealthy creep of a thought, so bold and yet so soft as it insinuates itself in her mind, and she feels a cold spasm of fear run its sharp finger down her back. Yes, she can see why William might have thought it better to kill himself. She could do it right now, take the St. Christopher's medal from her bedside drawer and push it open to reveal the needle tip, and then she could settle herself into bed one last time and she would never have to face them. It would be over, finished, and when they found her she would appear just as peaceful as William had, just as innocent. How easy it would be.
But easier for whom?
For one thing, the presence of curare in her bloodstream might now be traceable, even if it had not been sixty years ago, and would be revealed by an autopsy. Or it might not work, it might be too old, it might only half work. And, traceable orÂ not, they might still push ahead regardless with whatever investigations they had begun. Nick would be left to face the accusations alone, and quite suddenly Joan knows with absolute certainty that, in such circumstances, he would not rest until he had cleared his mother's name from whatever charge they brought against her. He is a barrister, and fiercely protective by nature. He would defend her with his last breath if he believed it was the right thing to do. It would all seem too far-fetched, too out of character to square with the mother he has known all his life.
In the reflection of the glass, she observes the man and woman walk back down the path and stand on the pavement to look up at the windows of the house before turning away. She draws back further. She can hardly believe it is happening. Not now. Not after all these years. There is the click of one car door opening and slamming shut, and then the other one. They are getting back into the car, either to wait for her there or to drive to Nick's house. She does not know which.
This is not how it was supposed to end. A sudden memory of herself as a young woman comes to her with a jolt; a bright Technicolor image of a life which, from this distance, she cannot really believe was ever hers. It seems so removed from the quiet way she lives now, where the only things filling her week are watercolour classes on Tuesday afternoons and ballroom dancing on Thursdays, punctuated by regular visits from Nick and his family. A calm and contented existence, but not exactly the extraordinary life she had once imagined for herself. But still, this is her life. Her only life. And she has not kept silent for so many years just to have it swept away from her now when she is so close to the end.
She takes a deep breath and walks briskly across the room, no longer caring if she is visible from the street. She must sort this out now, alone. She cannot allow Nick to find out like this. The afternoon sun falls in a white blossom of light through the window above the narrow staircase as she hurriedly descends the stairs to the front door. She unhooks the silver chain and tugs the door across the part of the mat which has a tendency to catch on the underside of the wood, blinking as her eyes adjust to the glare of daylight, and then she steps out onto the doorstep, her heart pounding in her chest. She sees the woman turn around as the car begins to pull away, and for a brief second their eyes meet.
âWait,' she calls out.
They take her to a large building in a narrow street not far from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, a forty-minute drive from Joan's house. They do not speak, except to check she is comfortable and to ask again if she would like to call a legal representative. She tells them that she is quite comfortable, and that no, she does not wish to have a lawyer present. She doesn't need one. They haven't arrested her, have they?
âNot technically, but .Â .Â .Â '
âThere, see? I don't need one.'
âThis is a matter of state security. I would really advise .Â .Â .Â ' The woman hesitates. âYour son is a barrister, I believe, Mrs. Stanley. Would you like us to contact him?'
âNo,' Joan says, and her voice is sharp. âI don't want him disturbed.' A pause. âI haven't done anything wrong.'
They sit in silence for the rest of the journey, Joan's hands clasped tightly together as if in prayer. But she is not praying. She is thinking. She is making sure she remembers everything so that she cannot be taken by surprise.
When they arrive, her seatbelt is unbuckled for her. She follows the woman, Ms. Hart, out of the car, while the man, Mr. Adams, walks behind them up the steps to a small wooden door set into a carved stone frame. He does not say anything but reaches forward and holds his pass up against a small black box. The door clicks, and he pushes it open.
Ms. Hart leads the way along a narrow corridor. She propels Joan into a square room with a table and three chairs and takes the briefcase from Mr. Adams. He does not follow them in but waits outside, and then shuts the door behind them. There are microphones set up on the table and a camera attached to the ceiling in the far corner of the room. A glass window reflects Joan's gaze back at her and she looks away quickly, although not before observing the faint shadow of Mr. Adams' presence behind the screen. Ms. Hart sits down on one side of the table and gestures that Joan should do the same.
âYou're quite certain you don't want a lawyer?'
âRight.' Ms. Hart extracts two files from the briefcase. She places them on the table and pushes the slimmer one across to Joan. âLet's start with this.'