Authors: Anthony Price
First published in 1984
LATIMER WAS TRAPPED
between the devil and the deep blue sea. Coming to the Oxbridge Club had been a mistake, for he almost always met people he disliked there. But some wayward impulse, generated by the minor annoyances and petty defeats of the day, had turned him into it off Piccadilly, and now he was justly served: the bar had been bad enough, and he had retreated from it; so he was caught between the CIA man and a colleague he detested, and he must face one of them—Howard Morris up the stairs or David Audley on the other side of the entrance doors.
Nevertheless, once identified, the dilemma was not too hard to resolve. The swarthy CIA man would merely nod, looking through him with blank unfriendliness, but Audley might well be amused enough to give him a Judas smile. And after the day’s tribulations that was not to be risked.
He relinquished the brass handle of the door and turned towards the stairs again, for all the world as though just arriving.
“Oliver, my dear fellow!” The American’s face lit up, and he took the first marble step down towards Latimer.
But that was all wrong—Latimer’s own foot, directed upwards, tried to change direction and only just cleared the rising tread. Not the voice … Howard Morris might look like one of Zapata’s lieutenants, but long years on the right side of the Atlantic had anglicized his diction and his vocabulary with monstrous deception … not the voice, but the friendliness was unnerving.
“Just the man!” The American took another step down, and then another, until further retreat would have been impossibly discourteous, even for Latimer.
For the first time in his life Latimer looked for Audley’s arrival with relief, waiting for the
of the heavy doors to rescue him. For Audley and Morris were—almost notoriously were—thick as thieves, exchanging favours and feeding each other with classified tit-bits to their mutual benefit. They would surely be glad to see one another, to his happy exclusion.
delivered him, and there came no change in the muted hum of the Piccadilly traffic-jam behind him.
“Just the very man!” Morris took another step, and then stopped. “Come on up, my dear fellow—come on up!”
Still no merciful
Latimer looked quickly over his shoulder, and was galled to see that there was nobody there now. But he couldn’t have imagined Audley. He had been there, on the outer step beyond the doors. He had been there, but now he wasn’t.
“Come on up, Oliver!”
What the devil could the CIA man want? Latimer felt himself drawn upwards inexorably, and now the CIA man was gesturing him up, instead of beckoning.
“Let’s not go to the bar.” The American cocked his head at Latimer. “There are some dreadful guys there … This time of day, with only a bit of luck, they may serve us a crafty drink in the library, if there’s no one about.”
Such exact knowledge clearly indicated that the CIA man was an Oxbridge member, and not just a lurking guest. And though he was not, so far as Latimer’s suddenly-fevered recollection of his dossier could recall, either an Oxford or a Cambridge product … yet that still left Trinity College, Dublin … Could he be a TCD man?
He knew where the library was, anyway. Also, the nod he gave to the white-coated servant hovering at the intersection was born of recognition and experience. But, in any case, no American (let alone a CIA friend of Audley’s) could be taken for granted.
“Ah!” The CIA man surveyed the empty library with satisfaction. The Oxbridge club library was reputed to be more than adequate on sport and good enough on globe-trotting, but useless on everything else, so that it was usually empty during opening hours. “Over there, I think.”
Latimer followed the line of the pointing finger, to the most shaded and obscure corner, full of doubt. If nothing could be taken for granted where Howard Morris was concerned, what indeed could be taken by
Oliver, my dear fellow
Something less than nothing. But it would be rude, when for some reason his instinct was towards politeness, to inquire about Trinity College, Dublin … Besides which, it would be to admit that he didn’t know any better.
“Let’s do something about that drink—eh?” The CIA man knew where the bell was. “I don’t know about you, but … for me, it’s been one of those days, Oliver.”
further cooled Latimer. They had met, and he had raised his eyebrows and moved obediently to commands, but he hadn’t said anything yet … not even
—but Morris didn’t seem to mind.
And now there wasn’t time for that. On the wink, the white-coated servant had followed them, radar-directed to the biggest tip of the evening.
“What’ll it be?” Howard Morris gave the man a nod for his usual, whatever it was in the library at this usefully dead hour. He had done this before, that nod indicated.
“I’ll have—” He didn’t want anything, but he couldn’t say
“—the bar red—the French, not the Spanish.” He looked at the American candidly, absurdly strengthened by that trivial decision. “You know, Colonel, I was tempted to say ‘That’s very civil of you, Howard’. But that would be to insult us both, I think.”
White teeth showed in the brown face. “Yes?”
“Yes.” Strength, however irrationally, fed on strength: it was a quality which pulled itself up by its own bootstraps, for the most inadequate reasons. “Let’s put it at its lowest level: you’re buying me a drink—and that arouses my curiosity more than my gratitude, I suppose.”
The CIA man looked at him, but the friendly—almost amused—expression in his eyes didn’t change. “Yes, I can go along with that. But it’s quite simple really. I was looking for David Audley—I heard he might be dropping in here.” He shrugged. “He hasn’t turned up. I thought you might know where he is.”
Latimer hoped his face didn’t betray his thoughts: it was quite simple—all too bloody simple for words. If the man was in some hole, who but Audley would he want to see? Not Oliver St John Latimer, for sure!
But that hardly justified a drink in private.
“Audley?” He echoed the detested name casually to give himself time to think the thought through. It had been on the tip of his tongue to deny all knowledge of, and interest in, the bloody man, and end matters there. But that would hardly deceive the American, who could be relied on to know all about the old rivalries and their recent ironic and humiliating outcome—he might even know of that from Audley’s own lips, for it was a tale Audley would enjoy telling.
“You haven’t seen him, by any chance?”
“Yes.” Truth. “Not far from here.” More truth. “But I rather think you’ve missed him.” It would have been easy for the American to ask that simple question on the stairs, without the necessity of this prolonged encounter. That was no less true—perhaps even more true.
Morris looked at his watch. “So … he’ll most likely be on his way home by now?”
“Very likely.” The thought was running smoothly now towards its destination. The American’s information had been correct: Audley
been coming to the Oxbridge. And as Latimer himself had prevented the encounter purely by chance—by arriving himself in the club on impulse—the American couldn’t have known
“Yes. And he likes his family weekends.” Morris was thinking aloud, and Latimer could follow his train of thought. “Otherwise … he’s pretty busy at the moment, isn’t he?”
It was Latimer’s turn to shrug. “I don’t doubt it.” Morris was undoubtedly in some hole, and with very little time to climb out of it, if he was reduced to clutching at Oliver St John Latimer.
Latimer said nothing. Cheltenham was highly classified, and it rankled with him that he wasn’t there instead of Audley (and he would not have miked off home every weekend, either). But the possibility that he was about to get some interesting information because of that soothed his rancour somewhat.
Morris nodded, eyeing him with transparent casualness. “And I take it that Jack Butler’s working you to the bone as well?”
“Oh … I’ve one or two things on the go.” Now it was certain. And the pure healing joy of it was that what he was about to receive had been intended for Audley. Indeed, it was so just and appropriate that he changed his mind on that instant and reached out into the pit to meet Morris halfway. “Nothing madly urgent.”
The servant materialized beside them, setting down their drinks on the table.
“Cheers, Latimer.” The CIA man drank deeply and gratefully from a pewter tankard, then touched away the froth from his moustache with a brown finger. There was some intriguing ancestry there somewhere, thought Latimer. Possibly red Indian? Hadn’t even Winston Churchill some of that fierce blood in him, from his American connection?
He raised his glass, and, although it was the same stuff as he had drunk at the bar earlier, it tasted very much better. For the first time in a long while he felt better, too.
Morris set his tankard down. “You know Senator Cookridge is in town?”
Senator Cookridge. From somewhere in the Mid-West, or the further West … it didn’t matter. Americans were not his business, thank God!
“You ever met him?” Morris took his silence as an affirmative.
“No.” He recalled that the Senator headed some American Defence and Security committee—again not his business.
“No, I guess not. American affairs are not exactly your scene, at that.” The white teeth flashed. “Hell! I’ve only met him once—across a crowded room. Not my scene either. Until now.”
Latimer felt he had to make some contribution by way of encouragement. “Defence and Security … ?” He took another sip of wine to cover the vagueness of his knowledge. He felt more at home in the Politburo and the Supreme Soviet than the American Senate.
“Now, he is. Agriculture was his … specialty.” Morris pronounced the word in the British way. “The ultimate weapon—you’ve been out there, Latimer?”
The man knew perfectly well. “I’ve never been to the New World, Colonel.”
“For God’s sake—anything but ‘Colonel’.” The American’s eyes clouded momentarily. “The last thing I flew was a P-51—as a captain. I was in sole-command of one man, and he was scared shitless that last time.” The eyes unclouded, and the teeth showed again. “Where Cookridge comes from … you could feed half the world. And heat the other half with the fossil fuel underneath.”
He was talking about power in more senses than one, decided Latimer. “But now he’s in defence and security.”
“And political muscle.” Morris paused. “He came to it late, but he’s in it now—he whispers, and it deafens me, you’d better believe it.”
The ex-P-51 captain was flying scared again, it seemed to Latimer. But, since he himself was still grounded firmly on British soil, with nothing promised or owed, that only made matters more interesting.
On the other hand, in his helpful
-Audley role, he could afford to be sympathetic, with all his options still open. “I do believe it.” He couldn’t say ‘Colonel’, but he couldn’t bring himself to say ‘Howard’ even now. “We have something of the same problem … if less acutely, I suppose.”
“Yeah, I guess you have.” Under stress Morris became less anglicized. “But … the hell of it is, Latimer … I want a favour of you.”
“A favour?” That was spelling it out with almost indecent clarity—so much so that Latimer was momentarily surprised. For there was not one single reason why Oliver St John Latimer should do Colonel Howard Morris a favour. Morris had never done him any good—Morris was David Audley’s friend and ally, not his.
“And there isn’t a single goddam’ reason why you should do it—I know.” It was as though the American had eavesdropped on his thoughts. “Not now, of all times. I know that too.”