(this was originally intended to be a spy thriller)

Simple déjà vu or stuck in an unending loop?

The diabolic phenomenon of Eternal Recurrence unfolds...



- 1 -


Have you ever walked alone through the streets at night? Just wandered along, not really knowing where you’re going, not even wanting to think about it? Well, one night I did just that. To tell you the truth it was not only that night. I do it almost every night. It’s a regular habit of mine. But it is that particular night I want to tell you about.

I walk at other times now and then, at dusk for instance, but almost always late at night. Rarely can a soul be seen. All around is a cold deathly silence; everywhere seeps foreboding and gloom. That is why I go. It is what attracts me. The sterile, dark streets and alleys, the barely perceptible sound of my boots creeping along the pavement, everything rests, is asleep, dead! In fact it reminds me of death; that most especially. That is my real reason for going; to think about death! But I don’t wish to die; I must tell you that straight away. My morbid wanderings are nothing more than a curiosity, a plain, basic search for the meaning of death.

I imagine as I’m walking that perhaps I don’t exist at all, but am merely spying, eavesdropping, peering in on an alien world. Would it all be identical to this if I had never been born or if I had died yesterday? Sometimes I wonder if it’s a privilege to be there, wandering aimlessly along those desolate streets at midnight. But it is better than being dead; however miserable I feel, whatever grief has descended upon me, I am convinced it is better than being dead.

Take that night, for instance. I sat in my room; a dingy little room, hardly enough space to turn around. It’s more than sufficient for me though; what do I want with anything bigger? There’s a bed at one end with its head beneath the window, and a sink at the other; and there’s a rickety old table at which I often sit if I've got nothing else to do. I picked it up for next to nothing from a junk shop in the town; you'd be amazed at what they keep in there. Between the foot of the bed and the table stands an ancient, threadbare armchair where I might sit and read. I think I spend most of my time sitting there. The padded arms are almost black and hard as wood from years of grease and grime. Sometimes I just sit there gazing at the room. Mostly I stare at the opposite wall; a very plain sort of wall, painted some years ago in a dull, creamy yellow colour; at least that's how I would describe it now. I thought about getting a picture for it once but decided I liked the wall better. I know every blemish in that wall, every last speck of dirt. If anyone were to so much as touch it I would know.

To tell the truth it's a filthy room as well. I've got better things to do than sweep up every minute of the day. But it suits me. Such rooms were made for people like me. 'Squalid', is what my friends used to call it. But what do I care? Nobody ever comes here now. The times when I entertained have long gone; I haven't seen my friends for years; I think they've given me up as a bad job. Besides, I'm past entertaining people; how can I afford it? I can scarcely scrape enough to feed myself!

As I was about to say, I sat as usual in my old comfortable chair, staring at the wall - you wouldn't believe the patterns I can see in that wall, it's as though I were looking right back into my brain - and while I sat there it occurred to me that I'd made a terrible mistake. You see, I haven't always lived like this. There was a time when I was, well, I was like other mortals. I used to be ordinary and respectable, going about with an air of importance, attending to all the details that normal people attend to - rushing around over all the most trivial matters in the world. That's when I made the mistake. The precise nature of my mistake always eludes me. Like an old dream, the more I try to summon the details the more obscure it all becomes; it’s as if I’m constantly tormented by some demonic word at the tip of my tongue. But why should I think of it then at that moment while I stared at my wall? Perhaps it had some meaning. After all, I'd been looking at the wall for years and it hadn't occurred to me before. But I don't believe in meanings. In fact - though it probably has nothing to do with it - my background is on an entirely different level; but no-one would guess that now; I'd stake my boots on it!

However, I put on my coat and crept out onto the landing. The silence was crushing; I could hear my pulse it was so quiet. I went slowly down the stairs and out into the night. As ever, I peered back at the apartments; I always like to see if any of my neighbours are still up. It was all dark. Only the street lights shone out onto the wet road. There was a fine, thick drizzle and a chilling wind. I fastened my coat up round my neck so the collar came up to my ears.

Being so late I was unable to see into the houses I passed: sometimes, when I go walking at dusk, I see the warm friendly rooms blazing with light and cleanliness, vibrant with the voices of joyful children. Never do I see a room such as my own. But I am well used to it and would have nothing else. I confess it is cold in my place, they cut my heating off long ago, but I wrap up well and some heat comes through from adjoining rooms.

So all the lights were out. Not even an upstairs light. I went along one street, then another, hardly aware of where I was going. I suppose I must have been walking for an hour, I know I was pretty well drenched - and then suddenly I felt I was being followed. Perhaps you've sensed that unnerving ambience, that uncertain, mysterious presence, as if someone is right behind you, almost close enough to reach out and touch? Consciously, you know you are alone, completely alone, and yet somehow, something you cannot define tells you that another is near. What that other is confounds imagination, but it is there all the same. I've felt it often as a matter of fact, but never so strongly as then; never so clearly.

I stopped and listened. I listened with all the sharpness my ears could muster. I have good ears, if anything they are too good, especially at night: I can hear someone breathing a mile off. As for my eyes, they're even better; my sight is as keen and crisp as that of a child. But I could see or hear nothing.

The drizzle had become like a mist, all-pervading and intense, and seemed to cast an unpleasant silence over the street. I stood there concentrating for some minutes. What wind there had been had dropped, which left only that unearthly hush augmented all the more by the heavy dampness. I was puzzled why anyone should want to follow me and I peered deep into the gloom for a long while. But, of course, there was no-one.

After standing there for some time I was about to move on when I heard footsteps from a side street just ahead. It was somebody running. The echo became louder and I held still and waited, standing on the pavement like a statue.

Suddenly a man tore out of the side street. He hesitated, and then an object, which I soon discovered was a knife, flew from the street behind him and hit him solidly in the back. It made a soft, hollow thud. Directly, he fell flat out in the road. Then another man appeared from the side street. He ran to the man lying there, and then he saw me. His eyes shone dimly and seemed to glare out in anguish. Slowly, without any perceptible movement, his illumined features took on an appearance of profound dread. He kept staring with this strange sort of terror pouring from his eyes. I confess I was terrified myself and my every muscle locked rigid. The light came from behind me so I would have appeared merely as a silhouette. After that I would know that face anywhere; it is embellished on my brain. Suddenly he turned and ran back into the side street. I could hear him running for a while before all went silent again.

I waited a moment to recover my senses. Then, faltering at first, I approached the man lying in the road and stood beside him. I leaned over and felt for his pulse. He was dead all right. My hand trembled as I stood up. He was past middle age, short and slim and his glasses were twisted and broken and were half covered by his face. For a second I sensed that I had seen him before, but I could make out only the side of his face. Perhaps it was the glasses I recognised. I could not bring myself to move him, not even with my foot. Then I noticed a package in his hand. I looked around to make sure there was no-one else about; not that I really thought there was, but I still had that peculiar feeling of being watched. I could see no-one. But as I turned back I was seized by an acute fear.

The shadows were different; something had changed. I looked again and as I did so I caught a glimpse of a figure slipping into an alley and out of sight. Again there was something familiar, the shape, the movement... impulsively, almost in panic, I took the package and put it under my coat. If that figure had seen anything, I thought, then he would not have seen me take it, not even if he were still watching. I had my back to him and moved in a way so to seem that I was simply re-checking the body. Briefly, I was confused about which way to go; but a moment later I darted away and disappeared into the night.

Soon, perhaps after an hour, I arrived back at my room clutching the package in my coat. I was too scared to open it straight away; there was no telling what it contained. I've learned to be patient over the years; there are few things in life that cannot be delayed, and often it is better to let things rest, to allow time for considered reflection.

Three hours later I still sat in my chair thinking. I don't know what I was thinking but my head swirled with all kinds of things and my hands trembled uncontrollably. I was still wet through but couldn't persuade myself to change. Before long, however, I decided to go to bed. The package lay there unopened on the table. I looked over at it in the last glimmer of my candle.

It took me some time to get to sleep, and I didn't wake until midday. And there laid the package. Even after an hour I still hadn't opened it. God knows what it contains, I thought. But my nerves were all mixed up and I couldn't seem to think straight. I felt it carefully then stuffed it behind my old chair. I imagined there was something about it that connected with my mistake and I was afraid to open it. Although this was pure imagination, it seemed to control my thinking. Imagination can sometimes do that; it can take hold and provoke all kinds of irrational thoughts, and one is completely powerless to oppose it. At least, that's how it is with me.

The package had felt like a bundle of paper, nothing more, but I wanted to see the street where the incident had occurred. I put on my coat, which was still rather damp, and went out. It took me ages to find, and then I wasn't sure if it was the place. I waited at the corner of what I thought was the side street and looked around. There was nothing unusual, people walked about and all the normal goings on were all in order. I crossed over so as to walk where the body had been. There was no sign of blood or anything else. Then I looked down that alley; there were hundreds of alleys like that. It was long and narrow and I wandered down it while trying to picture that figure. Soon I came out in another street and then I decided I'd seen enough.

I returned to my den and sat looking at my wall seeing if I could make out any new patterns. Alas, I was unable to concentrate. All I could think of was that damn package and what it might contain. Still, I refrained from opening it. I had yet to recover from the shock of that body. I looked down at my trembling hands. Time, I thought, give yourself time.

Later I took a walk to a nearby park. As usual an old tramp sat in the shelter. I had often exchanged a few words, but he was taciturn and morose, and he seemed not to like me. I walked by giving him a nod. He ignored me at first and then he waved. This was an odd thing for him to do. It struck me that his regard for me had changed, and then I recalled that dark figure, the one that had scampered down the alley. Surely it could not have been him? He was far too sluggish and dull; from his shoes up the poor devil was practically dead! I wondered at the thought. Later I did a little shopping, just a loaf and cheese, then I went back.

At dusk I wandered out once more. All the houses had their lights on now and most had their curtains open so I could peep through into those pristine, cheerful rooms. How I loved to see all this life that I used to be a part of. It brought back such memories that I was left almost in tears to think of it. Which reminded me of my dreadful mistake; my colossal, horrible mistake! But it’s too late to dwell on it now. That's all in a murky past. I know it's better forgotten, but it just won't leave me alone: it’s as though everything that happens is somehow tied up with it and I’m continually haunted by it; most especially then, when I walked along next to those bright, sparkling rooms.

It was a clear night, cold but pleasant; all the more so because of the people walking about. So I wandered around for a bit before returning to my room. Once again I sat looking at my wall. Then I remembered the package and reached behind me to fetch it out. It was gone! An icy chill ran down my spine. I couldn't believe it; how could it have gone? Had someone been in? There was no sign of any break-in. I stood up instantly, almost in a fit, and examined the chair, Oh, what relief, there was the package beneath the chair; it must have slipped down the back. Why the thought of losing it troubled me I could not say - it was a paradox. So I sat with it on my knee thinking.

Something told me I shouldn't open it. I thought about taking it out and shoving it in some rubbish bin in another street. It was no business of mine, I shouldn't interfere in the affairs of others, why did I have to go and pick it up? I must have been crazy to even consider picking it up. It was a spontaneous act, I did it without thinking, on the spur of the moment. Now I wanted to get rid of it. It had become an intrusion into my peaceful, albeit dull life; it had become a burden which fed on my mind like a disease.

But my curiosity got the better of me. I began to think: What if it contains money? And then I could think of nothing else. I got up and went over to the table and began to pull open the top of the envelope, with my hands shaking I pulled out a thick heap of papers and laid them on the table in front of me. There was no money. The papers were tied up with a piece of twine but on top was a separate sheet covered in scrawls of handwriting. At first it was difficult to make out but soon I began to make some sense of it. At the top it had the date of the day I found it and also the time of ten thirty pm written alongside. It went something like this:

The enclosed manuscript is an accumulation of knowledge gathered over the past ten years. Only scraps are included here since these contain the most sensitive, damning information. Many of the events cannot be substantiated by any clear evidence. From this record alone it is impossible to demonstrate that they took place, but they are certainly true none-the-less. Also within lies details of the method I have been researching of how the problem might be dealt with effectively. It is imperative therefore that the manuscript is delivered to its appropriate destination. My adversaries are onto me. My house is surrounded and will be scrupulously searched as soon as they have finished with me. Either I destroy the manuscript and ten painstaking years of diligent, arduous work by myself and many colleagues, or risk all by attempting to deliver it. Which is it to be? I have already decided to take the risk. Whatever happens it is all the same to me now. It is the only chance that something might be done. I can only pray that my decision is the right one. If you are my pursuer then touché, and may you rest in hell for your deeds. Certainly there is another copy, but it could lay dormant for years; so whatever happens you will sooner or later come to grief yourselves. If you are a stranger to all this then go to the public house in Murchison Street where you will be approached by a friend of mine who will recognise you. We have our methods of contact so do not concern yourself with that. But you must be alone. If you have doubts then read my uncoded introduction. I have no time to explain more. If I can only deliver this somewhere. That is all, and thank you my friend. I have but hours to live. Farewell....

The last lines were so scrawled and stretched out that I could hardly decipher them. They must have been written in a great hurry and under enormous stress. I was stunned, what should I do? What was it all about? I could still just dump it somewhere; I could even burn it. I went over and sat in my grubby old chair and gazed at my wall. I didn't want to get involved in anything like this. I might get myself killed like that poor devil laying in the road. He must be the author of all this. I could end up like him if I weren't careful. I sat there studying my patterns for a couple of hours then went to bed without so much as thinking about my nocturnal wanderings. My mind was so preoccupied with this dilemma that it took ages to get to sleep, and then it was a disturbed sort of sleep. What the hell was I to do?

In the morning my bleary eyes glanced at the clock. It was eleven. After a cup of brandy - I always make sure to have some brandy; one never knows, and just then I thought of it and drained the bottle; it had been a third full - I began to feel very light and cheerful. I hid the manuscript and went out into the street.

It was drizzling again and people were walking around holding umbrellas with glum expressions as they gazed down at the glistening wet grime on the streets. I, on the other hand, strode along with my head up feeling full of the joys of life. It was only a superficial joy, for behind it lurked the memory of my mistake, which stubbornly refused to leave me alone. If only I knew what it was? Oh, how it dragged me down. And on top of that I now had the worry of the manuscript! But on this occasion I was feeling quite well, almost ecstatic. It was the alcohol, of course.

In the end I found Murchison Street. Well, I thought, if his adversaries never got the manuscript they won't know about Murchison Street. But his colleague won't know which side I'm on. In any case, how could he possibly know it was me who had the manuscript? Then I saw a pub. It was called 'The Vampire'. What a name for a pub! I'd never heard of such a name for a pub! I just walked past trying not to look at it too conspicuously. I thought I should make sure there wasn't another pub in the street so I walked to the end. It wasn't far and evidently it was the only one, so I came back and once more passed 'The Vampire' and carried on down to the corner and made for home.

An hour later I had only just sat in my chair when I suddenly came over cold and shivery. I wasn't feeling ill in the normal way. It came from a kind of fear. I suddenly felt terrified and my whole body began to tremble. I looked over to the sink where I keep my bottle of brandy on a shelf. It was still there but empty. I felt a curious presentiment that something unpleasant was on the cards. Just as a precaution, for peace of mind, I decided that I should hide the manuscript somewhere safer than my room.

Still draped in my coat I put the manuscript inside an old newspaper and went out of the room. My room is on the third floor, I descended to the second floor where there is a broom cupboard for the cleaner who does the stairs and landings once a week. It was locked but I had a key. Over the years I had occasionally borrowed a broom or mop or something to do a bit of cleaning. Now I opened that door for the first time in months and stuffed the newspaper behind a lot of bottles and rags on a high shelf. It was most odd, for even while I was doing that I felt that someone was watching me. I simply glanced up and down the stairs and scratched my head in bewilderment. Then I locked the door and left the building in search of a wine shop. I could live for a few days without food, but I needed that brandy. There was just enough change left in my pocket.

The drizzle had stopped but the overcast sky threatened more to come. After buying my bottle I made my way to the park. Still shaking slightly I sat on a park bench and took a few swigs. Oh how that replenished my nerves! I didn't drink much; after all it had to last until I could get my next meagre allowance. I walked around for a bit before dark and then returned to my room.



- 2 -


Even before I opened the door I knew something was wrong. I could just feel it. I have a keen sense for things that are out of the ordinary. When I turned my key in the lock I found it already unlocked. I distinctly remembered locking it and trying the door before I left. Something told me someone was in there at that very moment. I could hear nothing, but somehow I just knew. Then I heard movement. For a split-second I froze.

Ever since that mysterious mistake, I’ve been plagued by déjà vu. Sometimes it’s so lucid I’ve wondered which way time itself was flowing. As I stood there, I suddenly fell into yet another of those weird freaks of memory. It happened the instant I heard movement... and in that same instant I knew that whoever was inside must have heard me try the lock. The crucial question: what took place next? On every occasion of déjà vu, I face this dilemma... how to break the loop; how to flee this infernal trap. I only had to change one event. If only I could see that crucial millisecond ahead. Reflecting on my immediate predicament: had I, in that obscure former time, darted into some crevice, the broom cupboard perhaps, or some alley out in the street? True, by doing so I risked being caught, but equally I might observe and even follow my intruder? On the other hand, I could simply scarper... just get the hell away as fast as possible? Which was it to be?

All this took place within that split-second I stood there frozen. I decided to play safe. I tore down the stairs and out into the street. Holding the brandy tight in my pocket, I ran and ran. Horror abound: it felt precisely as if I had done this before. Cursing silently I ran across the park, through the streets and down alleys, then into a little side road I was vaguely familiar with.

Soon I could run no more, and stopped by a tea shop, gasping for breath. As soon as I'd recovered I entered and ordered a tea. The proprietor gazed sternly into my eyes then at the rest of me. He drew back with distaste. Then I realised I was skint. Luckily a few coins remained in my pocket, but not enough for the tea. The man accepted what I had and I took a seat near the window. He had only two other customers: a young man and woman held hands over their cups. The proprietor kept his eye on me. So I sat there sipping my tea wondering what to do next.

Would it be safe to return to my room? Where on earth could I go otherwise? Then I remembered the scrawled note in my trouser pocket. I retrieved it and read through it again, slowly. Then I read it once more and decided I should examine the manuscript for myself. It was all somewhat dramatic, like a children's adventure tale; but I was curious of what it was about.

Someone had been murdered so it was no joke, I realised that much. But I didn't want to go to the police. I've had brushes with them before; they are buffoons in such matters. In any case they can be corrupt when it suits them. This might involve people in high places, I thought, it could be a serious issue. It also occurred to me that if it were that serious it was unlikely to be reduced to the hands of a dolt like me. What a farce, I thought. But then I dismissed the idea and considered it would probably turn out to be nothing more than gang warfare or something of the sort.

Suddenly the proprietor came over to me and I quickly shoved the note into my pocket. "What are you up to?" he growled. "If you're not having any more then you can move on!" He picked up my cup and returned to his counter, banging the plates about as though he were angry at something. He kept looking across at me with his piercing eyes, which seemed to go through me like a stiletto. I got up and went outside. It was raining. I stood in the doorway wondering where to go. Then I retraced my steps to the park where I made for the shelter.

The old tramp sat in his usual place peering drearily down at his feet. I decided to try and be friendly. "Mind if I join you?" I said, sitting a few feet along on the bench.

"Make yourself at home, comrade." he replied in a surprisingly clear voice.

This was astonishing, for I had heard little but grunts from him before. I judged he was sober for once. He held an unopened bottle of cider and spoke through thick stubble with a gentle, resigned tone of voice. I began studying him closely. I noticed he was younger than I had thought, perhaps in his early forties. I'd often seen him shuffling along, staring at the ground, his hair in chaotic strings and caked in grime, now it was dripping; he looked hopeless and despondent; his coat was sopping and every now and then he gave a shiver and pulled it tighter as if trying to get warm. "Here." I said, handing him my bottle. He put the cider bottle on the ground and grabbed it, smiling like a miser receiving a large sum. He seemed to shudder as he opened it. With eager desperation he swallowed a good measure before handing it back.

"My God!" he gasped, "Nectar! And to think I was considering giving it up."

"Have you got a place?" I inquired, taking a healthy swig myself.

"This is my place;" he replied, "or the railway station. At commuter times you can pick up a few quid there."

We sat quietly as the rain became heavier. His eyes were glazed and tired. "Have you always lived like this?" I asked.

He sighed, "You won't believe this, but two years ago I was doing all right. I’ve suffered a blackout. Things got bad and it's only now I'm beginning to piece together what happened." He sat there, periodically shaking his head and spitting out at the rain.

"Things haven't been too good for me either." I declared, "Can you tell me what happened?" I expected only silence or complaint, certainly 1 wasn't prepared for the revealing discourse that followed.

"I had a wife and two kids." he began, "We rented a four bed semi in a suburb of Richmond. Then, almost overnight, I lost the lot. The wife and kids were killed in a car crash. It was no accident. It was murder. Then I was on the run, in a state of shock. I lived, under the arches at Charing Cross for a few months, then I came here. It's quieter here. How about you?"

I looked out at the rain. He had been hanging around the place for over a year. His hunched, slow gait and his old flapping coat had become an everyday sight. During that time our few terse exchanges had suggested he led a life of chronic vagrancy. Having now suddenly come out with these unlikely revelations I could scarcely take in what he was saying. Paradoxically, there was no vehemence in his voice, yet he sounded convincing. I wondered if I was being taken for a ride? So what if I was; the story was plausible and it stirred my interest. In fact his circumstances made my own appear comfortable; a perspective which cheered me a little.

"Why were they murdered?" I asked solemnly, turning to face him, "What were you running from?"

"It's a long story." he mumbled, "I was a private detective. I got involved in something that was beyond my scope. I probed too deep and became immersed, almost fanatical; then things got out of hand. I was impatient; that was the trouble. It's easy to see now, in retrospect. I don't remember much, but it's coming back slowly. I'm making some recovery, thank God. Until now I've been going around like a cretin. I just have to piece things together and understand what happened; for peace of mind, if nothing else. Two years ago; that's a long tine. I've more or less got used to living like this now. I can't get money; they'd find me if I made myself known. I've got to keep a low profile..."

He leaned forward, staring at the shreds of paper and cigarette ends that lay sodden all around us. The disclosure that he was a private detective would normally have aroused my scepticism, coming from such a decrepit figure; but it raised my hopes, I wanted to believe him. Perhaps I had discovered an accomplice, a saviour. It were as though he had already agreed to assist me.

"I made a pretty terrible mistake myself some years ago." I said, mournfully, "Though I can’t exactly pin it down. It only involved myself, I mean no-one else suffered for it directly..."

"Oh, mine wasn't a mistake!" he interrupted, glancing at me indignantly, "My impatience was the mistake. But I had to pursue it; it was too important to leave. I remember thinking I couldn't live with myself, not like the others, and not try to do something."

He looked out through the rain as though blind and lost in thought. Streams of water gushed from the roof and splashed around the shelter. Again I offered him the bottle, but he declined. Then I said boldly, "So you're a private detective?"

"Was." he groaned.

"How do you rate your faculties? I have a riddle to solve." My heart began to race. It suddenly occurred to me that he might be some undercover agent and I the innocent victim plunging into an ingenious trap. But then it was I who approached him, I thought, and I've
watched him wandering around; if he's a fraud, he's either a
remarkable actor or a masochist.

"My faculties?" he laughed, "I can hardly manage to survive."

I was undecided whether to say anything more. His conversation was easy and lucid, with only occasional betrayals of the torments he had suffered; but he'd said he was recovering. I looked over at him briefly, there were no signs of deceit in his eyes, nor tensions or strains in his blank expression. Anxious to get to the point, for I felt the distress of my situation transform into an impetuous excitement, I decided to probe further and seize a suitable moment. "Were you getting paid much for this job; the one that caused all the trouble?"

"Nothing," he replied, shaking his head again, "I stumbled on it by accident when on another case. As I became more involved I stopped getting other work as if I was being deliberately avoided. Colleagues stopped passing on clients to me. In fact even my existing clients were warned off: a couple of them went so far as to confide that to me. When I pressed them to be more explicit they clammed up. I was unable to influence their decision to go elsewhere in spite of my good record. Soon I approached the breadline. None of my contacts or colleagues wanted to see me or have anything to do with me. I was told a number of times, in as many round about ways, to drop the..." he hesitated, searching his thoughts, "...the Vampire case,"

"What?" I cried.

"The Vampire case." he repeated, looking at me in surprise, "What do you mean, shouting 'What' like that? Anyone would think you knew something about it. That's the first time I've so much as thought of it in two years."

I could only shudder at this coincidence. "Look," I said nervously, removing the note from my pocket and handing it to him, "What do you make of this?"

Holding it up in the diffused glow of the street lights, he sat reading it with deep concentration. His eyes opened wide from their tired, half closed state. "I recognise this writing." he whispered slowly, as though talking to himself. Then he looked straight at me. "Where the hell did you get this?" he barked. His voice carried authority and I drew back.

I then told him every detail: about the murder, the pub and about the intruder in my room that had led me to be there now. I told him that someone had followed me, at which point he looked away, making me wonder about him. Could he have been the voyeur on that horrible night? But it was preposterous. I thought no more about it.

Finally he said, "I've got to think about this. Maybe..." Then he stopped; this time his eyes shone fervently.

"What's it about?" I said.

"Wait," he murmured, "I have to think." His whole manner had changed. His posture had straightened and lines of worry formed on his brow. Then he began muttering something under his breath as though unaware of my presence. After some minutes he emerged from his thoughts, alert and composed. He turned to me and said sternly, "Tell me where you live. I've got to fetch the manuscript. I have to see it, you understand? You must have been followed from the pub; then, when you went out they searched your room. They'll still be there, waiting for you nearby; unless they've found the manuscript. But they won't know me. Not now, not after two years. All I need is the address and the key to that cupboard." I gave him what he wanted and he got to his feet. "Wait here!" he said. And he tramped off through the rain.

* * * * *

I sat and waited with all kinds of thoughts going through my head. The sky had grown dark now but the street lights shone brightly from the road where traffic swished along beside the park. I moved to the end of the seat where for the most part I was shaded from the lights; I shut my eyes and sank into a strange reverie. The continual hissing from cars on the wet road only encouraged my trance-like state. My desire for escape from the entire sordid affair overwhelmed me; I began to conjure up a horrible scene, something like a nightmare, and so clearly that it might really have happened. I was in a dark room. The door was bolted and there was no way out. Someone was lunging at me with a club, beating me around the head. Then I was on the floor, curling myself into a ball and they were kicking me viciously. Everything grew darker and the beating sensations became slow and muted until I could feel them no more.

I had hardly noticed the lapse of time. Suddenly the detective was back again, "Well, so much for that." The voice said. My hallucinations vaporised and I was back in the shelter. He sat down beside me. "Did I wake you?" he chuckled.

"You've been quick." I said, feeling glad to be awake and wondering how he had managed to return so soon, "What happened? Did you get the manuscript?"

"No," he sighed, "there's too much activity. We must wait until things calm down. You can't go back there; not tonight."

"What are we going to do?" I asked, feeling despondent.

"We'll go to the station. So long as one remains unobtrusive the transport police turn a blind eye. I'm almost on good terms with some of them."

We traipsed through the rain and the chaos of traffic and blinding lights, and twenty minutes later we were in the station. The detective beckoned me to sit on a steel bench, then he walked into the thinning crowds. I watched him approach people with an obsequious head-lean, bending forward then peering up at them beseechingly. Mostly they ignored him or waved him away, but occasionally someone would hand him something and he would nod gratefully as they hurried away.

After half an hour he returned. "Seven quid!" he said smiling, and then sat beside me, "At least we'll get some supper."

He had only been sitting a few minutes when a tall, middle aged man with a large nose stopped a few a metres away and began fumbling around in his pockets. He held an umbrella and a briefcase in his right hand. With considerable delay and difficulty he extracted and lit a cigarette with his free hand. It appeared that this was merely a tactic, for he kept glancing curiously at the detective. His dark suit might have come from Jermyn Street, it was immaculate. He frowned and hesitated before approaching the detective.

He said, "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"
"I'm often about here sir," mumbled the detective, now staring timidly at his feet, "this is like home for us losers, can you spare a few pence for a cuppa'?"

"Oliver?" queried the stranger, momentarily perplexed. The detective seemed to tremble, then he said in a low, irritable voice, "Who's Oliver? Leave me alone will you."

Oliver didn't look up, but the man persisted. "Look," he said, "look at me. You're Oliver Ford. You can't disguise that voice. I thought you ware dead! Where have you been? I'd given up searching, I never thought..."

The detective raised his head. "Corbin!" he muttered, "I don't believe it. How come I haven’t seen you here before?" There was silence as they glared at each other. "But whose side are you on?" he continued, standing up and moving to the side as though preparing to make an escape.

"Wait, calm down. I'm on your side; what do you think I am? You know me better than that. I'm cautious, that's all. I knew it was dangerous and you went in like a madman. What could you expect? It shook me though: I thought you had more sense. I can't imagine what you must have been through. But things are worse now; events have almost left us behind…. Sod, what a turn up! Ford, alive and well. I haven't used the train for years, but today... What a stroke of luck! If I'd have known... We could use your help if you feel up to it; will you consider it?" he looked anxiously around and began moving away, glancing at his watch. "It’s not safe here…" he added, fumbling in his pocket.

"This is all a bit sudden," said the detective, looking slightly shaken, "I don't know."

"There isn't much tine," said Corbin, clearly anxious to get going.

"What have I got to lose?" said the detective, "Look at me!" Then turning to me went on, "This is a friend. He's onto something; I'd like to tell you about it."

"Follow me, both of you, but not too close. We must not appear together. Tunbridge Wells!" He took out his wallet, handed Oliver a £20 note and strolled swiftly up the platform. Shortly, some distance away, I saw him step into a train. We boarded the next carriage and sat opposite each other by the window.

This entire business was out of my world. Unable to make sense of it I said nothing and just went along with whatever took place. It was certainly a pleasant change from what I had become used to, and in a way I began to enjoy it, though with a certain uneasiness.

An hour later we followed Corbin at a safe distance while he walked out of the station at Tunbridge Wells. We walked for more than half an hour until in a long avenue he turned into a driveway. Oliver constantly kept watch for any signs of us being followed. Five minutes later we entered his house.

The place was large and detached with gable windows and exposed beams. This Corbin was clearly well to do. With a strange terseness he introduced his wife as Sarah. She greeted us coldly and sniffed at the air. Then she led us upstairs, showed us a room each and suggested we take showers while she would search out some 'decent' clothes! During this interval I could just hear Corbin's muted voice downstairs. He was using the telephone.

Sarah had winced when she heard Corbin say ‘Ford’, though curiously I felt that our presence had not been entirely unexpected; I assumed Corbin was apt to bring friends home from time to time. Sarah's hair was like a man's: short, jet black and neatly parted. Her grey-green jump-suit hung loosely and gave her a military look. A soldiers’ beret and a machine gun would have matched her frigid features. Half an hour later we all sat in the lounge.

"Help yourselves to drinks." said Corbin as he poured one for himself. Sarah placed a small ice bucket by the drinks cabinet then took a seat opposite her husband. I got up and poured Oliver a large brandy and the same for myself. It all seemed pleasant enough, but I wondered how long it could last and to what it might lead.

"This is all very well," began Oliver, addressing Corbin as I handed him the drink, "but how do I know I can trust you? For all I know you could have switched sides," He spread himself across the sofa and studied his brandy approvingly.

Corbin leaned forward, his face synthetically calm. "Why should I do that?" he sighed, "Think of the risks... Remember Bixo Kent?" The detective nodded. "Well, he was a double agent. According to a memo that came through only this afternoon he was picked up yesterday at three in the morning with a knife in his back; stiff as a board!"

"Gawd, so it was him!" mumbled Oliver, "Well, I suspected as much; poor old Bixo."

Corbin suddenly looked puzzled. I was struck by their lack of sincerity, as though they held little regard for this unfortunate Kent. I gathered he had been a respected colleague. The poor devil surely deserved more appreciation than that, I thought, putting his life on the line as he had.

"But what about them?" continued Oliver, "What about their agents?"

"We've got our eyes on Spencer;" Sarah replied, glancing at Corbin, "he's good, almost too good. Remember him?" The detective nodded again.

"But what do you mean," Corbin asked frowning, "you suspected as much?" His large nose protruded grotesquely as he thrust his head inquiringly at Oliver.

"Show him the note Steve." said Oliver, turning to me.
At that moment the phone rang in another room and Corbin seemed to flinch. Sarah went to answer it. I'd left the note in my old trouser pocket upstairs and I went to retrieve it. As I left the room I heard Corbin whisper, "You shouldn't have mentioned that...".

I like to move about with as little fuss and noise as possible, it's my nature I suppose. I crept silently up the stairs leaving Oliver and Corbin alone in the lounge. It only took a few seconds and I was back in the hallway where I could hear Sarah on one side and Oliver's muffled voice on the other. I paused and listened. My ears are very good, as I have said, and I could hear Sarah clearly, every word.

"...Listen," she said, in a whisper, "Ford has turned up from some gutter. He's got an accomplice... No, Steve; five-nine, late thirties, youthful... What? Kent's file? How did he get it?... It can't be!…. (long pause, then)… I'll see what I can do. I’ll call tomorrow,.." She went on to say something else, but I decided it was time to return to the lounge.

Oliver was standing; he came towards me and I handed him the note. To my surprise he snatched it and passed it to Corbin who put it in his pocket without even looking at it.
"It's lost;" murmured Oliver, "don't say a word," He sat down again; then Sarah came in.

"It was Halsey;" she said, "according to Spencer they've decided to abandon the search, so Halsey is going there tomorrow."

Corbin looked at her questioningly. "Isn't he coming...?" he began, then stopped and stared at the floor.

Little else of any substance was said that evening, but during the meal – for which they hired a local and entirely innocent kitchen maid - it became clear to me that Sarah, who seemed more than a little disturbed by the mysterious disappearance of the note, was trying desperately to cross examine me, to find out as much as possible about my background and involvement with the case. I could see through her casual curiosity and I fended her off with trivialities, which Oliver found suitably amusing though I’m not sure Sarah was convinced

Corbin had looked on anxiously, saying nothing, and soon he suggested we turn in. "We'll be making an early start." he said, I had no idea what was planned, and thought it best not to ask since Oliver smiled knowingly when he said it. It was obvious to me that Oliver was rapidly adapting to his role of earlier times: I could see the enthusiasm growing on his face, a new posture too, which betrayed a definite confidence which I had not noticed before. Another thing which seemed clear was that Sarah was not Corbin's wife; I cannot explain why but they just didn't behave right.

Obediently, Oliver and I went to our rooms. He whispered to me, "Don't trust her!" I knew that while Sarah and I were out of the room some significant discourse had taken place. I was dog tired but could not get to sleep straight away; I was unused to the excitement of my new situation and the silence. The bed was so comfortable after my old mattress that I revelled in the luxury of it. It was almost midnight when the phone rang again and I heard Corbin say, "I'll get it." Then I must have fallen asleep.



- 3 -


I was awoken by a sharp knocking on the door and Oliver's voice, "Get a move on!"

"OK." I groaned. It was just after six and a glimmer of light crept round the edge of the curtains. When I reached the foot of the stairs I could hear Sarah and Corbin in an argument of whispers in the lounge.

"Here." cried Oliver from the kitchen. I walked in and he handed me a mug of coffee and pointed at a rack of toast.

"What's going on?" I said, "And when can I go home?"

He laughed and then looked at me sternly. I could scarcely believe it was the same person as in that park. "The issue," he said, with the utmost gravity, "is one of global importance…" At that instant a car screeched to a stop outside and two doors slammed. "Don't worry," he said, "it's just routine."

"What?" I'd hardly got the word out when the front door bell sounded and a man walked past the kitchen window. Oliver opened the side door and a tall, clean shaven man of about thirty entered. He had on a black bomber jacket and a tartan cap which he removed.

"Ford," he said grimly, shaking Oliver's hand.


"No more cock-ups, eh?"

Oliver dropped his head, "My God!" he murmured.

Then Corbin came through from the hall "We're ready." he called, turning to me, "Come along my friend." His voice was reassuring, though it aroused a wave of fear in me and rooted me to the spot as though I was being summoned to my execution. He took my arm and led me through to the room with the telephone.

* * * * *

A stocky man in his fifties sat beside a desk that had an inlaid layer of tanned leather. He was replacing the telephone receiver as we entered. He looked up at me, frowning. His face was crazed like an old vase and was partially silhouetted against the window; but there was something about him that I recognised. He was impeccably dressed in a grey, pinstripe suit and a wide, dull green tie against a maroon shirt. He suddenly smiled at me, almost maliciously, as though he had suddenly realised something. I could barely see his eyes through his heavily tinted glasses. He picked up a file while Halsey placed a chair behind me and told me to sit. I heard the door close and I looked around. There was just the three of us.

The front door slammed and I saw Sarah go past the window just before Halsey drew the thick, velvet curtains. Then a car started in the drive and roared away. A dim table lamp illuminated the file which the man opened and began leafing through, stopping and scowling occasionally.

Halsey took a seat between me and the door, "We just want to ask a few questions," he said, "we are on your side, you have nothing to worry about. We believe you can help us and we want to be sure that you are who you appear to be..."

"Steven Featherton;" The other man broke in, "British; born third March fifty-eight at Oxford where you lived until you went to college at Bristol in seventy-seven. You studied physics, got a two-one then tried unsuccessfully for some high level research posts," He looked up at me and removed his glasses.

"How did you know?" I said, astonished. His red, weathered face was resolute and he raised his eyebrows questioningly, "Yes," I said, with a slight quiver in my voice, "that's all true."

He flipped over some pages in the file and then peered at me again, once more removing his glasses, "You were a member of the Communist party for one year in seventy six," he said, "but only attended three or four meetings. In eighty nine you joined the Green party..."
For half an hour he bombarded me with facts about my past, bringing up minute details which I could hardly remember myself! He drew all kinds of deductions from them; I was terrified at first, especially when he touched on my mistake, at which point he grinned maliciously, almost as if he might have been behind the whole scheme. Then, abruptly, he dropped the subject. Now it was me who did most of the talking: my views on this and that, what I’d been doing with my life, trivia mostly. Next, they joined forces, provoking and lulling me into admitting all kinds of things about my political views and various aspirations: whether I'd ever been inclined to revolutionary ideals, what were my thoughts about Fascism and socialism? Eventually I felt exhausted by all the trick questions and side issues, which seemed to balloon from my replies. Needless to say, much of what I told him was fabrication, make believe, invention…

It was then that to my horror the real interrogation began. Both of them drew closer and sometimes shouted menacingly one after the other in quick succession, often catching me out and confusing me so I scarcely knew what I was saying any more. More than once I found myself in self-contradiction. My eyes flipped from one to the other as they fired their accusations. They challenged me on everything, right down to my decrepit life style of recent times and bringing me almost to tears. Their questions often interrupted my replies almost before I'd begun to state them. They insulted me, called me a traitor, a waster, a troublemaker and to cap it all – an anarchist! Sometimes I screamed my answers in angry desperation, but they screamed louder and I began to shrink and cower. A number of times I tried to rise from the chair in anger or despair, but Halsey's powerful hand was instantly on my shoulder holding me firmly in place. Then again they introduced the issue of my terrible mistake…. Always failing to elucidate, always edging around the periphery without spelling it out. I was simply shattered; in the end I just clammed-up from sheer exhaustion. And their reaction was almost understanding, even approving.

They went softly now, and into some detail, searching for motives and reasons. Each reply I had to explain and justify, I was dragging up such memories, such terrible memories, memories that I had long ago deliberately and successfully exiled from consciousness, that I just wanted to run! Then they went onto something else and I began to wonder who exactly they were, what did they represent? It was clear they were checking me out, authenticating my identity, confirming that I was not some kind of agent.

Finally, they resumed their original calmness, yet making further enquiries in a more civilised manner. They began quizzing me about how I might handle an involvement with espionage; and then the man suddenly changed the subject and remarked, "Nine years ago you were part of a seismic research team in California," his voice was soothing and friendly. "Would you be prepared to take on a similar project again?"

I could answer none of these things straight, and merely spluttered and stammered and shook my head. They must have thought me insane, a useless waste of their time. Relentlessly, they pressed me for answers. "What are you trying to do to me?" I cried, eventually. At this point, unexpectedly, the man nodded to Halsey who went over and opened the door. As I rose from the chair, I noticed through the gloom what appeared to be a small television camera attached to the pole of a standard-lamp; it was pointing directly at where I had sat. Leaving Halsey behind, the man led me out and escorted me into the lounge. With his physique he towered above me. It was ten o'clock; the grilling had lasted more than two hours.

In the lounge, Corbin and the detective were examining a heap of papers strewn over the coffee table. I slumped into a chair as they stood up in response to us. The man gave a fleeting smile. "He's all yours." he said brightly, "I don't think we have anything to worry about." The three of them stared at me then Corbin and the man left the room.

Oliver poured a large brandy and placed it in my unsteady hand. "I'm sorry," he said, "but it had to be done. We have to be sure." I swallowed the brandy in one gulp and he got me another then sat opposite me. "If you like," he said, "you can leave and have nothing more to do with all this; it's up to you."

"I don’t know what to think." I said, and shook my head in confusion.

"Think about it," he went on, "give yourself time. If you decide to help us I have to warn you that for a week, while the department make a few more enquiries, you'll be under a sort of observation." He folded the papers and placed them in a pile, "After that," he continued, buoyantly, "you'll be my assistant; at least for a while. I think we can work together?" he peered at me from the top of his eyes while I sat there in a stupor, thoroughly dreary and lifeless. For some reason I could not get a word out. He shook his head and smiled blankly, "We'll talk about it later. You'll be letting  yourself in on something which might stay with you for the rest of your life, but there are rewards, believe me!"

Halsey came in, "The key?" he asked, holding his hand out to the detective. The key to the broom cupboard was handed over and Halsey said, "Give us an hour. Be seeing you," His eyes flashed in my direction as he swept from the room. Minutes later the front door slammed and I heard the car pull away.

I remember only a few things after that. Oliver gave me more brandy and I was soon feeling quite tipsy, I watched them scurrying about for a while, rushing around collecting up this and that and tidying up; then one of them slung a small hold-all at me and told me to follow them. We went through a door into a garage and climbed into a black Jaguar. I sat alone in the back where in my semi-drunken state I spread out my arms and legs and somehow began to really relax. The garage door swung open of its own accord. The engine coughed into action and without further delay Corbin, with Oliver beside him, swerved the car out of the drive and we raced up the road like a dragster. I remember glimpsing a 'Sold' sign-board outside which hadn’t been there before. Soon we were heading for London on the A21.

Somehow I began to feel quite contented, and was surprised not to detect the least worry or concern for what might lead from it all; it did not even occur to me to enquire why we were hurrying or what would happen next. Oliver's words went through my head over and over: "..global importance." he had said. It almost made me shudder in anticipation. After that two hours of grilling, I had concluded it was something political.

I detected a strange electrifying tickle at the back of my neck as old, unsettled scores came into view. It was a very clouded vision, incoherent and confused, and one which made little sense at that time, but I remember it contained flickerings of events that I had preferred to forget. In spite of that my curiosity was aroused and I was unable to dispel these new recollections. Perhaps, I thought, this was a fresh beginning, a chance to get back on my feet, to dispose of all the wreckage of my past and do something useful after years of waste and drudgery. Whatever did he mean by it: 'global importance'?

I was like a kid enjoying some mystery adventure and I suppose it gave me a kick, a kind of thrill, though I remained relaxed and cool-headed. I believe I was even smiling, for when Oliver peered round now and then he studied me curiously; each time his frown slowly dissolved into a grin before he turned back and continued his quiet conversation with Corbin. At least I was among friends, I thought, but what dangers loomed ahead? Doubtless, Corbin and Oliver had wasted little time during my traumatic interrogation, but our guests would scarcely have resorted to such rigorous methods if it were not for very good reasons.
There was no way I could get mixed up with violence; certainly not guns! I had never won a physical conflict in my life! They knew that, of course, so my heart rested easy on it; I'd be no use to them in any sort of brawl or combat. So what did that leave? Espionage? Subversion? Certainly, those had been mentioned, but that was specifically with reference to my past. I had indeed gained experience in related fields, enjoying many little triumphs over tyrannical authorities, though essentially at a low level. But doesn’t everyone engage in such conflicts from time to time, to some small extent at least? To take on these activities as a specialty, a full time occupation, however, was quite another issue.

Eventually we were in the Old Kent Road, and minutes later I could see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Soon we were crossing Westminster Bridge on the inside lane. A police car overtook, and then another appeared alongside and remained level with us. I looked round and saw yet another on our tail. The uniformed occupants peered at us in a way that scared me a little. Their demeanour looked tough and military, and lacked the glossy poise of usual policemen.

Suddenly, Corbin shouted, "Get down!" He braked hard then swerved sharply and I fell across the seat. I grabbed a door handle and spread out to hold steady. The detective sunk into the well in front of his seat and Corbin's head dropped out of sight. It seemed that we had veered onto the pavement and the car was manoeuvring around pedestrians. I caught a glimpse of a few startled faces as they fled, swinging their briefcases and leaping clear. Sirens wailed and tyres screeched. We lurched forward and spun and twice bounced off something solid, perhaps a bollard or lamppost; each time the car shuddered but kept going. Then I heard three bursts of automatic gun-fire and a series of sharp, dull thuds echoed in the boot. The unfamiliar sound almost froze me rigid. I was sober in an instant and thought our lot was up! But the Jag rushed forward amidst hooting and skidding while I held my breath and clung on. Corbin’s head intermittently bobbing up from low in his seat.

At one point, as we cornered, I lost my grip and was thrown onto the floor; I thought we should have turned over. I felt safer on the floor and decided to stay there. Then we accelerated at an incredible pace and the sirens became more distant. Upper levels of buildings flew past and again we cornered sharply, somehow regaining upright. Once more the car roared ahead, swerving, weaving and bouncing over kerbs. Then a further surge of acceleration forced me hard against the panel below the rear seat.

We continued for some minutes and I chanced to raise myself a little and peep out. We were on a duel carriageway, winding smoothly around already fast-moving vehicles. Corbin was sitting upright again and Oliver had moved back into his seat; likewise, I resumed my position. This went on for a time; than Corbin yelled, "Hold on!" and we braced ourselves, we must have been doing nearly a ton when he braked hard and I nearly shot over to the front as we eased, screeching, into a side road, accelerated again, then braked sharply and turned into the driveway of a modern block of flats. The car drove round into the back courtyard and came to a halt.

"Number five." snapped Corbin in a staccato voice. He handed a bunch of keys to the detective who jumped out and ran towards a block of garages. "You too." he added, and I got out. A red Range Rover emerged from number five. By the time I'd climbed in Corbin had stored the Jaguar and Oliver had locked the garage door.

Soon we were returning at normal speed down the carriageway, my two companions now wearing check caps, which they had found in the glove compartment. Oliver turned to me, threw another cap and said with a satisfied grin, "There's about fifty of those dotted around the city," What could I say? I smiled back nervously, still recovering from the drama which appeared now to be over.

A couple of police cars went past in the other carriageway. "They're getting slack," laughed Corbin, "lucky for us!"

Twenty minutes later we pulled up outside a block of luxury flats. It was in a quiet suburb south of the river and not far from Chelsea. It resembled a small village, skilfully separated from the sprawl of the city. We emerged from the Rover and walked along a short, shrub-lined path and into a cavernous, plush entrance lobby fronted by nothing but glass. Soft, low chairs were spread amongst huge pot plants that reached up and spread themselves from Grecian urns and marble boxes. Corbin nodded to a uniformed attendant who stood severe and erect behind a curved marble desk, he proceeded to an open lift beside a staircase, also of marble, its first few steps tapering and flanked by gilded banisters which twirled outwards at the lowest step. Two broad pillars stood either side, capped with gleaming spheres of marble.

On the top floor, the sixth, we entered a corridor. Gold-framed oil paintings were hung at intervals and small matching chandeliers glowed dimly. A door opened ahead of us and we marched in.

"Kurt Brink." said Corbin, waving his palm towards the man who had opened the door, "You know Oliver, of course..."

"Voila! Welcome back." said Kurt in a strong Scandinavian accent, "Now," he added, smiling, "perhaps we can get down to business?" His voice contained a friendly overtone and he shook Oliver's hand with unusual vigour.

"Been a long time," replied Oliver, "Hear you've made some headway?"

"Ah, headway." he laughed, "Yes mister Ford, one could say that."

"And this is Steve," Corbin continued, as Kurt redirected his eyes towards me, "our latest recruit, I believe?"

As he spoke, Corbin seemed to study me, as though seeking some sign of approval for his choice of words. In spite of his unfortunate nose and my gruelling interview, for which I held him partly responsible, I felt no real animosity. Nevertheless, the stunning effect of that morning's upheavals, augmented by alcohol, had left me a little concussed and unable to respond properly. I turned to face our host.

"Latest recruit?" he cried, "Welcome to you my friend, welcome!" Kurt thrust out his hand and I took it cheerfully. I say 'cheerfully', though I cannot claim that I knew why at the time, except for his amiable manner and an odd feeling that I had seen him before. He was about forty five, slim and of average height. His clear, blue eyes were large and bright, and flowed with vitality; and his brow, unwrinkled and placid, stood out beneath a mass of thick, dark blond hair which hung loosely over his ears, one of which was decorated with a plain gold ring. He had a small wispy beard and wore a grey, open neck shirt with the sleeves rolled up untidily. His features suggested a composed temperament and the firm grip of his hand together with an almost imperceptible bow seemed to imply he was someone I could trust. He moved across the room with an air of humility, "Coffee?" he said, raising his eyebrows and glancing at us in turn.

"Great." said Oliver, sniffing the air like a hound. He followed Kurt over to a cabinet by the window where a tall jug gave off little whirls of steam.

So far as I could see, this was a modest penthouse; luxurious, but not over done. The coffee smelt delicious and I was about to go across to the others when Corbin turned to me.
'I’m sure you'll be comfortable here for a few days," he said firmly, as though wishing to suggest that I had little choice in the matter, "and that Kurt is able to persuade you to help us." He moved casually over to a sofa and beckoned me to sit opposite on an identical sofa. "Over the next two days," he continued, "Kurt will fill you in on the background, the total of which is known to very few of the public but is nevertheless available to them, or has been at some time or other. Then I shall require a decision. But remember: once you've decided to join us and we've taken you into our confidence there's no going back. If you leave us after that you become a liability. Do you understand?"

I nodded, "What would be the consequence if that happened?"

"You would be given an alternative identification," he said quietly as though such a suggestion were pure hypothesis, "and you would be sent to some obscure country away from any trouble. You'd be there for at least five years I would guess."

"Oh." I said, blankly.

"Looking at your history," he went on, more seriously again, "you appear to have sympathies for our cause. It is not extreme and is financed from government funds, though not directly; that is, via other agents so our identity is fudged, so to speak."

At that point the telephone rang. Being better disposed than the others, Corbin got up and answered it. "Halsey," he called out. Oliver and Kurt nodded. He listened for a few seconds before saying, "Right; leave it to me," and then replaced the receiver. He returned to the sofa, leaned towards me and continued; this time in a quiet, dispassionate voice which compelled my full attention.

"Our work is concerned with locating the roots of a powerful malevolent force; and those roots seem to be cropping up everywhere. It is a highly reactionary force and it is sweeping the world; it seeks complete domination and so far as we can tell will stop at nothing. Its strategy is to create instability, war, famine and poverty; all of which tend to thwart our efforts to resist. And as if that weren't enough, this force successfully gains support by means of propaganda that steers other causes towards the destruction - things as absurd and unlikely as earthquakes, for example. They deceive the world with their iniquitous fake compassion for those they have plunged into bedlam; and in the pretence of preventing aggression they slowly extend their control... " He smiled sadly and cupped his face in his hands. Then he looked up refreshed and said, "We hope you will feel inclined to assist us in countering this menace.,. Coffee?"

I had almost forgotten the coffee. Oliver handed me a mug and sat beside me, Corbin’s exposition had captured my interest; as, no doubt, was intended. Bearing in mind this absurd scenario, I reflected on that gruelling interrogation; the issues were beginning to come together, but there was a lot missing. If only I could properly account for those two years that had followed my mistake - that blank-out I somehow can never fully recall. True, I had been involved with seismic tests in California; and that big guy, the one with the tinted glasses who had grilled me, he knew something about it all right. And I had met him before; I now knew that for certain. But it was a mystery, a void, a lost segment of my life to which he had alerted me, and was now starting to take on a significance that troubled me more deeply.

Kurt put a plate of biscuits on the low table that separated Corbin and myself. He passed Corbin a mug and sat at the end of the table on a stool with his back to the window, "You may not have an outstanding IQ," Corbin went on with renewed vigour, raising his eyes to me once more, "but we have quite enough of that in our ranks. What we need is your experience and a certain dedication. We know enough about you to expect your cooperation and if you're wondering how we know, well, we have access to records on many members of the public. In fact, with the aid of computers, selecting potential enemies or allies from existing files is an important part of our work. Our organisation is often referred to as C6? though it has other code-names. My responsibility is for what we call our reconnaissance branch; that is, for searching out names and adding to a particular category of those files, a high-risk category as a matter of fact; in other words, it is my task to identify and locate those who oppose our work. What happens to them after that is not my concern. That is the job of another department," He hesitated as though unsure whether to reveal his next thought. Then, faltering, he said, "You may think it was pure chance that you became caught up in this recent affair, and in one sense it was, but whatever you believe you should realise that we are not renowned for passing up an opportunity."

How, I wondered, could I have been caught up other than by chance? I thought of that elusive figure in the alley; but was too confused to concentrate. We drank our coffee and devoured the biscuits while they talked about things I did not understand. All the time I kept trying to fathom Corbin's last statement. Shortly, though, Corbin and Oliver left.



- 4 -


During the next two and a half days I learned some startling things from Kurt. He confirmed some that I had vaguely known about, but most were new to me. He made a prolonged speech about the world political situation from a perspective that I had not considered before, certainly not for many years at any rate. I listened passively while staring down at the coffee table on which rested Kurt's huge, shoeless feet as he lounged back on the sofa where Corbin had sat.

"It all sounds far fetched to me," I said, languidly, "but I wouldn't be surprised if it's true. In fact nothing would surprise me these days. I've been out of touch you see. I haven't even listened to a radio for several years. It all seemed so banal and irrelevant. Besides, how could I afford a radio?" With a twinge of guilt I pictured a bottle of my favourite brandy.

"That's it!" he replied, as the brandy vanished from my mind, "It's the normal response. Far fetched! Banal! Irrelevant!" he sat up now and began stabbing his finger at me accusingly, "And that's how they get away with it. Easy, isn't it? However, one cannot believe radio any more than TV or newspapers. But wait, let me finish." he cleared his throat, then went on to expand his scenario.

While the discourse continued I concentrated as best I could in my strange new circumstances. It struck me as odd, his being so considerate in other respects, that he failed to take my dramatic change of circumstances into account. Without a break he rolled-out this great tapestry… My intellect, weakened from years of neglect, was hard pressed to keep up. All the same, I decided to listen and understand what I could, allowing the murkier details to sail over my head unchecked.

By not interrupting I avoided the risk of tedious, drawn-out clarifications of issues that were at most of secondary interest to me. If they were important, I reasoned, then I would learn them at the appropriate time: after all, they concerned rapidly fluctuating world events. There was no way, I thought, that I would need to be familiar with all this, most especially me, a mere humble technician; or was I, I wondered, being set-up in preparation for espionage? I also wondered at this time whether I would be wise to let myself get carried along into this complex and dangerous struggle.

But Kurt was a professional; he took it all in his stride. He seemed confident that any efforts to eradicate the force of which Corbin had spoken were worthwhile and would eventually lead to success. I supposed that his faith in the fundamental goodwill of mankind left him no option than to see it that way. But from the excited manner in which he unravelled the problem, its scale and significance, its whole convoluting gamut of intricacies, I was quite naturally sceptical and only hoped he was sufficiently well informed to judge. I gained some reassurance, at least, from the knowledge that there were people in high places who saw the undertaking as worthy of large investment.

Kurt's expositions were not fanatical nor were they particularly intense, though he clearly believed in the cause. As the afternoon progressed his dialogue became intermittent and later, to my considerable relief, he invited me to a game of chess. I had not played for near on twelve years and in each game he slaughtered me amidst peals of laughter. We drank coffee during the day and in the evening we dined - consuming a wonderful bottle of Chablis.

That evening he revealed something of his youth in Sweden. He had once trekked alone into the northern mountains and lived in a log cabin through an entire winter, blocked in by snow and surviving on hare cooked over a log-fire; and a single sack of grain, which he would boil into a mush. This, he said, was ideal training for a life of espionage, both for the solitude and survival.

At college he had studied languages and could speak several fluently. It was at that time when he first became involved with a group of activists while travailing in France. Among them was an Italian called Torino who had been seeking recruits for a base group in France to be initially administered from Sicily. Subsequently, after training in various regions of Italy, Kurt assisted in the founding of a French unit and when things became lively in Britain during the seventies he crossed the channel to assist with the development of a British team which eventually became C6. Since then various projects had taken him to the Far and Middle East and the United States. His primary function now was to liaise between national groups. He had only recently returned from a gruelling investigation in South America and my presence had disrupted his short rest period.

As he enlightened me to all this he continually probed for details on my own background. At first I was surprised by certain things he knew, things I could barely recall myself, but when I questioned him he made no secret of the fact that he'd seen my file and refusing to go into detail he praised my mistake as one which could be regarded as a mistake only from a particular point of view. "Everything is experience." he kept saying over and over. He insisted, however, that we all still had much to learn and that I would need to adjust my view of the world if I were to fully accommodate the 'sorrowful truth’, as he described it.

Like old friends, we talked late into the night. I was unable to shake off the feeling that I'd met him before, but I said nothing and went to sleep tracing back to before my years in that miserable den.

* * * * *

On the second day, Kurt resumed his more serious frame of mind. He explained the likely consequences of a failure to frustrate the reactionary force, and after a time he stopped and sat thinking quietly. Then he said, "It is the British involvement which concerns us most, though much of our work takes place abroad. Our operations are run from all sorts of strange locations. In spite of that it has been suspected for some time by more perceptive sections of the public that the government here is an instrument of that force. Well," he added, shaking his head reproachfully, "I can tell you here and now that it is indeed a fact. Incredible, but true!"

"If that is true," I said, '"then surely it’s treason." It was a scandalous idea, though it certainly fitted with everything else: facts he'd explained and suppositions he'd deduced, which at times seemed to blur together.

"You don't believe it, do you?" he chuckled, again shaking his head.
"I don't know." I replied, beginning to think anything could be true after the events of the last few days. "Like everything else you've told me, it does sound fantastic."

"It's certainly that;" he said, frowning, "but the facts speak for themselves."

Uncertain and yet fascinated, I watched him keenly as he enlightened me further. "Take an example:" he said for the hundredth time, again flying off onto another wild train of thought. "I won't go on," he said finally, "though I could elaborate for hours, but I suspect it's pretty clear to you now."

I had taken most of it in, and I spent the afternoon thinking it over while he fiddled with some paperwork, now and then replying to questions which occurred to me. Later that evening I still had not come to any decision, so after another fine dinner Kurt said I should sleep on it and have my answer by the morning.

On the third day at precisely nine in the morning Corbin arrived alone. He presented me with the key to that broom cupboard and told me the Manuscript was not found, though the cupboard door had neither been forced nor tampered with. Then he sat in the same place as before and said, "Well?' He raised his eyebrows and waited.

I still had not made up my mind. Apprehensions from the time of my mysterious mistake were beginning to enter my thoughts. There seemed to be strange familiar parallels, obscure similarities in everything that happened and everything that was said. There were, of course, risks too, though I had no real notion of what they might be and had no idea what to say to him.

"We will want you to go to California;" he said, persuasively, shoving forward his large nose, "since you spent almost two months there some years ago you'll know how to go on. Not much has changed."

My mind swam with vague recollections: they had been good times, in part, but some horrible shadow hung over them.

"Of course, all expenses paid," he added, even more persuasively, "and there's a handsome salary; this type of assignment is well rewarded. Shall we say fifty thousand tax free for your first year, negotiable after that depending on how useful you turn out to be?"

I was astounded. Fifty thousand! And California! And I would be doing something worthwhile. What was the alternative? Back to that dingy hole and my patterned wall. To hell with the wall, I thought. I don't ever want to see it again.
"Very well." I said suddenly, almost without meaning to.

"Good man!" cried Corbin. "I knew you wouldn't let us down."
Kurt handed him a coffee and also placed one in front of me. He stepped around the low table and took my hand, shaking it vigorously, "Welcome to C6," he said warmly.
"Right." said Corbin. He stood, removed his jacket, revealing a shoulder-belt with a pistol in its holster, then sat once again on that same settee facing me. "First," he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully, "I want you to dress as you were when we met and return to your old accommodation,"

"What?" I whispered.

"The manuscript is not where you said." he continued, "The whole place has been searched. Even our opponents haven't located it if I'm correctly informed. I just think it might still be there somewhere and I want you to go and look for it.”

"But how should I know where it is?" I said, alarmed at the thought of returning there. "If it isn't there then that's it! What chance do I have if no-one else can find it, especially after the kind of search that must already have taken place?"

"I don't know," he replied, "I just have a hunch that it's still there; where else can it be? Use your initiative. Your approach will be different to the professionals and you never know, something might come of it."

I nodded slowly, unhappy at the apparent hopelessness of my very first mission, "If you say so." I said, reluctantly.

"Remember," he began once more, "your situation has altered; you're no longer a wasted talent. You must regain a positive outlook and realise that in the circumstances anything and everything must be checked and thoroughly. As I've said, we're up against a formidable and ruthless force and it is not enough merely to equal it. We must be rigorous and try to get at least one step ahead. We are beginning to gain ground after a terrible regress; that must not be allowed to happen again."

He stood, walked round the sofa and picked up his jacket. "Now," he said, "tomorrow evening Oliver will pick you up at the station. Be sitting on that bench where you first met me, at let's say 18.00 hours, and hopefully in possession of the manuscript or at least with the knowledge of where it is. Use a deposit box if necessary."

"I'll do what 1 can." I said.

"Then," added Kurt, while Corbin drained his cup and prepared to leave, "you'll return here for a couple more days, and I'll bring you up to date with a few other details."

"And," put in Corbin, "we'll see about the Californian connection. Don't panic if you cannot find the manuscript, that'll pass to someone else. I know you'll do what you can."

After exchanging some files with Kurt, which he arranged carefully in his briefcase, Corbin left. Kurt prepared a sandwich while I dressed into my old clothes; and later, after offering me some words of advice, he gave me fifty pounds and drove me to Waterloo.



- 5 -


So I was alone again, and I felt strangely vulnerable. For half an hour I stood about and wandered lethargically around the station trying to make sense of all that had happened. It seemed almost like a dream: Fifty thousand! I thought. The words kept revolving in my brain. It was a damn big sum, more than I'd ever imagined I could earn. It didn't occur to me that such amounts were not paid for nothing! But in a way it was a nuisance for I couldn't get it out of my head.

Soon I walked out of the station and towards the park, urging myself past a wine shop. It wouldn't make the job any easier to become intoxicated. After all, in about thirty hours I'd be back in that penthouse looking forward to another of Kurt's gourmet suppers and a bottle of something outstanding.

I glanced, already with nostalgia, at the shelter where I had met Oliver. Then, soon after, I came in sight of my old abode. I paused to compose myself. I had the notion that someone was waiting for me and I felt a bit scared. Then I shrugged inwardly, braced myself and strolled across the road and into the entrance.

Just before entering I noticed old Barringer's curtains twitching. His flat was on the second floor, beneath my room, and opposite that troublesome broom cupboard. He had been retired since before I'd moved in and I reckon he knew almost everything about the comings and goings of the block. He was a belligerent old moaner, but far from stupid so far as I'd been able to make out. He generally kept to himself, and rarely had visitors: I couldn't imagine anyone putting up with his unsociable manner for long.

Cautiously, I climbed the stairs. As I approached the second floor I could see Barringer's door slightly ajar and an ever-curious eye glancing out. I'd observed that before; he was a nosy old bugger, always watching and taking an interest in other peoples business. Anyway, I kept going with the intention of just giving a nod as I used to do on such occasions, when suddenly he swung the door half open and beckoned me to enter. Somewhat surprised by this, for it had never happened before, I hesitated before following his instruction. In fact, he'd always been reluctant to allow me into his place: once, when I'd asked him to lend a few tea bags, he'd looked me up and down distrustfully and kept me waiting outside as though I was after his money or something of value. However, full of curiosity, I stepped in and he glanced suspiciously around the staircase before closing the door.

He followed me in and said, "You may as well sit there." and jabbed his finger in my back propelling me towards an upright chair. So I sat, beside a dining table which was against the wall opposite the street window. I peered at him inquisitively.

"I know what you've come for." he growled in his usual, irritable voice, "You youngsters are always causing trouble and expecting us older ones to bail you out.”

With some difficulty he knelt down in front of his bathroom door and swung it open so it lifted slightly on rising hinges. Then he fiddled for a moment with the underside of the door. To my astonishment he extracted the crumpled manuscript and laid it on the floor beside him. I rushed over, helped him up and took the manuscript.

"I saw you hide it in the broom cupboard." he muttered, groaning from the exertion, "It's lucky for you I was nosy, because it wouldn't be there now if I hadn't taken it. They searched this place twice! Two different lots. They searched everywhere, but I," he went on, tapping his temple with his forefinger, "I outsmarted them. What have you got to say to that, eh?" and he glared at me arrogantly.

"I'd say you're a genius!" I exclaimed, almost laughing. "I'll make sure you get rewarded."

"I don't want your money;" he snapped. "I don't want to get involved any deeper. What you've got mixed-up in looks pretty shady to me. I can't imagine what possessed me to do what I did." From the way he looked at me I could see it was only fear that made him respond this way.

"Money!" I said, then added, "What you did could be valuable to some people I know. How about a move to a new apartment, somewhere smart, somewhere you'd be safe?" He looked down at the floor with an expression that suggested he might accept.

"Maybe." he said, easing himself onto a chair. Then he pointed at the manuscript, "Half of it's just blank pages. It's all there though. I nearly threw the blanks away but I managed to get it into the door panel complete. I read a good chunk of the legible stuff, not all. Strikes me you'd be well advised to steer well clear of it. No-one should read a thing like that. Get rid of it while you're still sane is my advice. It's a trap. Anyone could get stuck indefinitely. What is it, though, that makes it so valuable? Those bastards who came here weren't going to give up easily. They were serious all right and were real professionals; they left the place just as it was but that door's about the only place they didn't look. They even checked the top and went around tapping it like a doctor taps your chest and back. They did the same along the walls and skirting. It must be well important to them. But I outsmarted them all." he repeated smugly. A smile of satisfaction crept over his wrinkled face.

"I've just got to take this somewhere." I said, getting up and brandishing the manuscript, "then I'll come back. I'd like to talk more but I have to deliver it somewhere safe."

"As you wish," he replied, now raising himself from the chair, "but like you say, you'll be back; I guarantee it. And if you know what's good for you you'll take note of this: there's been a couple of jokers lingering down there ever since the search. I'd look out if I were you; no doubt it's you they’re after, and they'll have seen you come in.”

"Or this." I said, waving the manuscript.

With the manuscript stuffed in my coat I hurried down the stairs and out through the fire exit at the back, then headed for the station, continually checking that I wasn't being followed. I jogged across the park and glancing round I thought I could see someone dodging from sight about fifty metres behind. Weaving through the traffic, I hastened over the main road and eventually reached the station where I made for the deposit boxes. I selected one, put the key in my pocket and turned to see a figure emerge and then swiftly retreat from an archway at the end of the boxes. I turned the other way and caught sight of another dubious looking character peering from the other end. There was a narrow passage half way along behind me; I made a dash for it and saw my two pursuers leap out and follow, no longer attempting to conceal themselves. I did not think they saw which box I used so I just had to get away. My coat was impeding my escape so I removed it while I ran and flung it onto a station trolley as I came out into the main concourse.

Crowds of people were milling about waiting for trains. I tried to lose myself in the swarm and then wheeled round towards some phone boxes, five of them, and entered the middle one, all the time keeping a sharp lookout. I lifted the receiver and dialled Kurt's toll-free number. A woman answered, "Your code?" she asked.

"Hello," I said, "can I speak to Kurt?”

"Please quote your code sir, otherwise I am unable to connect you."

This was all I needed. It was only by chance that I remembered the number and now they wanted some code. Why hadn't they told me? "C6." I said, suddenly catching a glimpse of the two characters tailing me who now emerged from the crowd. There was a click and a ringing tone and then Kurt's voice, "Box 24!" I cried, forcing the deposit box key into a crack behind the cash container, "Key in middle phone box."

They'd spotted me. I dropped the phone and pelted out of the station and onto the broad sweep of steps leading down to the road. I stopped dead in my tracks. Facing me on the steps were four snazzy tough guys standing in a wide arc. They looked about as friendly as hungry wolves. They slowly closed in. I peered round to see the other two come up slowly behind, one each side. Before I could think, they took hold of my arms. I squirmed, but they held me solid. Then the four separated and one of them went to open the door of a shining black Bentley waiting at the bottom of the steps. Peering around in a kind of desperate hope for assistance I was led down the steps towards the car.

Then I noticed two cops walking from behind the end of the station about thirty metres away. I struggled violently, broke free one arm and waved frantically, shouting, "Help! Kidnap!" The thugs dispersed as if they'd never existed but the two holding me remained. I kept struggling as the cops ran towards us. One of my captors shoved a gun barrel in my ribs so I could hardly breathe for a moment. He made sure I could feel it and whispered, "Do that again and you're dead!" he concealed the gun as the cops stopped beside us.

"Right," said one of them, addressing me, "What's the trouble sir?" I felt the gun nudge into my ribs.

"Let him go!" barked the other policeman, and they released all but my wrists.

Then a tall, suave man emerged from the front of the Bentley and moved in a feigned casual manner towards us, saying, "Excuse me officers," and he made some strange almost insignificant sign with his hand.

"Yes sir; of course," said the second cop, almost dipping his head.

"What's going on?" said the other cop, looking at me.

"I've got something they want." I replied, trying unsuccessfully to release the grip on my wrists.

"And what might that be?" he continued. They all stared at me and I glanced around at them in turn.

"A key." I replied, trying to drag it out to give myself time to think and so increase my chances of escape.

"And what might the key be for?" he went on.

"Look officer," pleaded the suave man in a classy accent, addressing the second cop; "I'm sure you have more important matters to attend to. Thanks to you," he added, "we are now in full control as you can see. I must apologise for the disturbance."

The first cop turned back to me, "Well?" he said, as though hearing none of the interruption, "Answer my question!"

"It's for a deposit box." I said, my brain working flat-out, "The guy dropped it and I picked it up and wouldn't return it."

The second cop began nudging him and twitching his head as though suggesting that they drop the matter. But the first cop wore a bewildered expression and turned back to me, "That was rather silly sir," he said, "now perhaps you would be good enough to return it,"

"I think I've lost it." I said, still wriggling to free my hands.

"Look..." repeated the suave man.

"Let him search his pockets!" bellowed the second cop.

"Look..." said the suave man again. He was becoming visibly anxious and bands of sweat were forming on his face.

I began feeling around in my pockets when the second cop yelled, "I've had enough of this nonsense, search him!" The two captors gripped my wrists again and the first cop commenced the search. It was pretty thorough and all he came up with was money and some clumps of old tissue which he replaced.

"It must be in my coat," I whispered, glaring indignantly at the suave man while continuing to try and free myself.

"He threw it on a trolley in the station," said one of the captors.

"Well then," said the first cop, "we'll go and find it." So we marched into the station with the suave man still imploring the second cop, who seemed to be the more senior of the two, to let him take me and that they'd find the key later.

The cop waved him down, "Yes sir," he said reassuringly, "we'll just find the coat."

The trolley, of course, had been moved and after some ten minutes we found it on a platform with my coat half covered by mail sacks. The first cop removed it and checked the pockets and then the lining. "Nothing!" he said, shaking his head.

"It must have dropped out," I surmised in a tone of indifference.

"You don't say?" remarked the first cop, emphasising his sarcasm with a condescending frown.

"Look,.." repeated the suave man in an even more pleading voice than before, again addressing the second cop who took a deep breath to signal his growing impatience.

Then one of the captors said, "The phone box!" and then we all went towards the phone boxes. As they came into sight I was delighted and relieved to see Kurt sneaking around the boxes and making his way to the middle one. I struggled and fell in an attempt to give him more time, but they soon picked me up and dragged me along. I lost sight of Kurt and we arrived at the box. Straight away I could see the key was gone.

Suddenly, I yanked my hands down as hard as I could and I was free. I turned and darted between them. They lunged at me, but only touched, and I raced out of the station, dodging the thugs, who I'd taken by surprise, and in seconds I was lost amongst the traffic and street crowds. I kept running through alleys and back-streets, zigzagging one way then the other, all in the opposite direction from which I'd come. Soon I emerged into Blackfriars Road. A bus had stopped in the traffic and I leaped on, not thinking where it might be heading. Now I began to recover my breath. Staring at my feet, I began to relax. I wondered if I'd be able to find somewhere to hide. For all I knew the entire police force might soon be on the lookout for me. I would have to change my appearance.

I'd been ignoring the stops and paying no attention to where we were, so long as it was away from the station I wasn't concerned. Then I raised my head to see, with some surprise, my old 'home' coming towards me! At first I thought: that's the last place; then we stopped in the traffic; the last place, I quickly reasoned, they'd expect to find me! I leapt out and made for the block, bolting across the road, through the doors and up the stairs. Barringer's door opened as I approached and he waved me in. I slumped into the same chair as before, panting and coughing.

"I said you'd be back;" he muttered, coming towards me, "though it's sooner than I expected.” He leaned his hands on the table, "At least that's those two clowns got rid of; perhaps now we can go back to normal... Did they get the papers?"

"No!" I gasped, "At least, I don't think so."

"Well," he continued, "it's of no consequence either way. The real papers are still here."

"What?" I blurted, glaring up at him. What was the old bastard playing at? And if that wasn't the manuscript he'd given me, then what was it? It had felt and looked like it in every way. If he's telling the truth now, I thought, then all that hassle was a complete waste of time... scarcely to mention the risk!

A sly look flickered across his face. "You wouldn't credit an old bugger like me with intelligence, would you?" he said. I looked at him amazed, annoyed, curious. I'm dealing with a real weirdo here, I thought; what the hell was he up to? "When they came to do the first search," he went on, with an air of nonchalance and straightening himself into an assertive pose, "I just happened to be reading it. So what did I do? I shoved it down the back of me trousers!" he tugged at the back of his waistband as if I needed a demonstration. True, they were a pretty big pair of trousers; and I'd noticed when he sat the waist came almost level with his armpits. "There was no choice;" he grunted, giving me a sharp stare as though pre-empting any critical remark I might throw back at him, "it was as simple as that!"

"So where is it?" I said.

He went over to a small bureau. "I figured that trick I played on you was the only way to dispose of those creeps out there without the risk of losing this ominous manuscript of yours."

I glared angrily at him and shook my head slowly, "No thought for the ordeal I might go through, then?"

"It worked, didn't it?" he snapped, looking hurt by my expression, and now brandishing the manuscript. "There's no need to look so black about it. You're here now and in one piece even if you have had a bit of unexpected excitement." He slapped the envelope onto the table in front of me. "Here," he said, "the real McCoy!"

I removed the contents of the envelope and immediately recognised the file. "Thank you." I said, glancing up at him. Then for the first time I saw a strange compassion in his tired old face. Somehow it seemed that it had always been there. I'd just been too preoccupied and impatient to notice. Then, as if he'd received some telepathic message from my subconscious, he fetched out a half bottle of brandy and placed it beside the manuscript.

"I know more about this than you think." he said, calmly, "And you'll see why, if you're mad enough to read it. Frankly, I'm contemptuous of the whole issue. You no doubt missed the small-print warning on the envelope. Not that anything so bland would make you change your mind, nor whatever I might say. Curiosity is how we humans moved from stone-age apes to space-age techno-geeks... apart from sex it's our most powerful trait, all but impossible to resist. Take the bottle and go up to your room and read. Who knows, you could outsmart the whole scam and break the loop?"

What was he trying to tell me? "A veritable philosopher too." I said, attempting to humour him. Then re-examining the envelope I read for the first time a line of very small capitals along the top edge that I'd previously ignored: 'WARNING - READ THIS AND YOU MAY NEVER ESCAPE'. I looked up at him. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

He shrugged, then fumbled in his pocket and took out a key. "Here's a skeleton key." he said in a dismissive monotone, handing it over. "It'll fit your room. Let me have it back when you leave." That last sentence rose slightly in pitch towards the end. He went to the door as though inviting me to go.

"OK." I said, getting up, "Thanks. You're wasted here."

"You won't thank me after you've read that." he growled, "I'll say it again. Ditch it... at most regard it lightly, a mere academic riddle. Then move on.... always move on.... that is, if you can!"

What, precisely, was he trying to say: '...if you can'? I picked up the envelope.

"I'll consider it, at least." I said, "But soon it'll be out of my hands and I can't answer for what happens after that."

"You don't have to worry about me;" he said, "I can look after myself. Focus on your own predicament."

I nodded doubtfully and picked up the brandy, raising the bottle in a sign of gratitude. Then I left him there and ascended to my old room.

I unlocked the door and immediately locked it behind me. Nothing had changed. It was exactly as I’d left it, even down to the patterns on that beloved wall. I put the manuscript on the table and poked around in my cupboard for a glass and an old packet of biscuits. I poured a generous brandy and took a biscuit... stale as hell. The light from the window began to fade with the late afternoon dusk and the orange street lights shone warmly on the ceiling. I put my money-saving fifteen-watt table lamp on and shaded it so that from the street the room would appear unoccupied. There was enough left in the meter to sustain it for a few hours... after which I'd resort to an old stub of candle. No more feeding the meter, I thought, no more staring at that wall! Soon I'll be out of here for good. Then I sat at the table and removed the file from its envelope.

Wearily I let my hands rest on the file. A flow of semi-conscious ruminations ran through my mind and merged with Barringer’s enigmatic warnings. For a start, I supposed the author was Kent. And I guessed his opening would be dramatic and pitch straight into action. Perhaps his account would finally reveal how he had come to write that fatalistic cover-note? I imagined, at least, a compelling treatise describing issues relating to those Kurt had explained - politically complex and largely historical. It would necessarily be superficial, I reasoned, perhaps exposing just the surface of something that could have colossal implications.... a mere over-view of the entire international setting - including how, from its very conception, it had evolved to where it now stood. I imagined that having established a concise picture of the background, he’d have recounted details of his last crucial assignment, the one that went wrong and led to those final moments I witnessed myself. Would it mention specific locations, I wondered (considering my strange disposition for memory flips), places I might recognize or have some connection with, somewhere I had never been but that might nevertheless strike a familiar chord?

I clutched the file; but like a kid with his second Jack-in-the-Box I warily continued to hesitate. My thoughts drifted again. I tried to recall my previous life – that is, before I’d descended to this pointless existence living in my den of grime. Soon I fell into a deeper trance. Names, events, places floated randomly across my mind, followed by other memories: incidents, ordeals, adventures even... incoherent glimpses mostly. Then I stopped and looked up from the table, startled and unbelieving. Fragmentary, long forgotten images stood vividly before me now, images that connected my past with events of the last few days. I recognised the lucid yet disjointed pictures, which were increasingly unpleasant, as in a fantasy nightmare.

Attempts to see meaning in all this were not helped by my fatigue. I returned my focus to the present and was abruptly conscious of the crushing scale of the room. In all the years I had lived there it had never occurred to me that I inhabited what was practically a cupboard. Suddenly the gloom, the filth and wretchedness seemed to shriek out at me with a fearsome, penetrating dreariness. My blind immunity had vanished in that flicker of recollection. It felt as though the whole building pulsated, the walls moving inward, the ceiling down, and the door shrinking to the size of a shoe-box as though I was gazing down the wrong end of a telescope. Was this oppressive cell really my room? Was it really where I had lived for seven years - and had originally accepted even with gratitude?

I became aware of the endless distant grind from traffic and people in the street below; the frantic activities of the day swarmed in an incoherent jumble in my head; only then did I notice the intensity of my fatigue and confusion, never had I known the room so alien, so hostile, so menacing. I had tolerated it long enough. This had to be my last time in the place: once a welcome retreat, a haven, a sanctuary even, it had transformed into a hell, a place of destitution, of suffering and remorse. Along with so much else in my past I had now come to despise it. In fact I detested it now as though it alone was the cause of all my troubles.

A faint, inexplicable gloom seemed to ooze from the age-stained walls. I sensed that every desolate moment was somehow recorded there, indelibly etched into the fabric, and now in a macabre and timely reversal of play was pouring back out at me. I tried to ignore the raw sensation of fear that gripped me just then as I glanced down and finally, brazenly opened the file.

Instantly I was hit once more by that familiar ominous sensation of distorted time. Had all this happened before precisely as it was happening now? As ever, again I hesitated: to read or not to read? What had I done last time? What had Barringer said that I needed to consider above all? It was the longest experience of déjà vu I had known; it seemed to continue indefinitely while I sat there wondering and striving but failing as always to grasp that vital split-second ahead, just a mere fraction of a second was all. But as so often before, it refused to show. It was like trying to see the back of your head in a mirror. With a sigh, I felt myself cave in.... I lowered my gaze and began to read... At once, it all flooded back...AAAAHHHH!!!



Have you ever walked alone through the streets at night? Just wandered along, not really knowing where you’re going, not even wanting to think about it? Well, one night I did just that. To tell you the truth it was not only that night. I do it almost every night. It’s a regular habit of mine. But it is that particular night I want to tell you about.

I walk at other times now and then, at dusk for instance, but almost always late at night…


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