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Friends, Russians, countrymen

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Great Episode Challenge. 15-21 September 2017

Friends, Russians, and countrymen

 

He ran into him on his way to meet Napoleon, who was waiting in the car down in the garage. The tall Englishman was coming out of the elevator.

“Illya, my old mucker! Good to see you again. You haven’t changed a bit. How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” Illya replied coolly. “How are you, Mark?”

“Extremely well, and raring to go.” Mark said, and continued, chattily, “I heard you were here, of course. Never would have thought we’d end up on the same side, eh?”

That all-too familiar, breezy bonhomie of the privately-educated English male, speaking in the cut-glass accents of the upper-classes, with their implicit put-down of lesser mortals – or serfs, in his case. His old mucker, indeed. He knew what that odd expression meant now. A place at Cambridge didn’t make you equal, they made sure of that.

“No,” he replied. “It must be strange to find that even Russians take any kind of moral view of the world.”

“I didn’t mean...” said Mark awkwardly, “don’t be like that, Illya … you know how it was at Cambridge… Secret Service recruiters and all that.”

“Yes. I do know.”

“Yes … well. Anyone of your background was under suspicion. Still are, for that matter.”

There was an unhappy silence.

“Are you on an operation, then?”

“I am.”

“Where are you off to, or is it a secret?”

“No secret. Venice,” he said, “Italy.”

“Is there any other?”

“You’re in America now, Mark; there usually is.”

*****************

He hadn’t thought about Cambridge much in the last ten years, preferring to remember his time at the Sorbonne. French students were better company; more naturally egalitarian, and they felt a certain fondness for Russians, despite their rather mixed shared history. The girls were nice too… very generous. He’d learned a lot, one way and another.

But Cambridge… if they weren’t ignoring you, they were bent on Hooray-Henrying the life out of you – particularly if you were a thin, weedy, foreign, brainbox. And the girls were... not generous, anyway.

The Hooray Henries, a vociferous minority, often prided themselves on doing bugger all, old chap; learning no foreign language (“Johnny foreigner speaks English, why should I learn their lingo?”); and achieving their degrees by cramming for a couple of weeks before finals. A third, or even a pass, would get them into Daddy’s firm or an overpaid job in the City, why waste more effort?

Illya’s doctoral research was, fortunately, off their radar, and physics post-graduates were relatively civilised. But he often had to run a gauntlet to get back to his rooms at night, and it was on one of those nights that he bumped into Mark Slate. Literally.

Like others before him, he had the misfortune to stand out as a foreigner, which attracted the same disdain from the Hoorays as being working class. He tried to pass as a second-generation Russian émigré rather than a Soviet, with a home in France; but even as semi-French, he was anathema to them; no-one likes the French, after all. King’s had its share of Hoorays, and there was a group of them making merry in a corner of Front Court when he came through the college gatehouse. They spotted the gleam of his hair and gave the “view halloo” cry of the huntsman sighting his prey.

It’s a mistake to run from dogs – it just encourages them; but nevertheless, he ran for it, aiming for the chapel and the side gate into Trinity Lane (which was locked as it happens), hoping to take refuge with a friend in Clare College. They came for him across the sacred, Fellows-only, turf of the court, and it was as he passed the chapel porch that Slate stepped into his path and collided with him so that he fell flat.

“Oops, are you all right, old man?” he said, bending over Illya’s prostrate form.

“I’m fine. Sorry about that.” As he spoke, the drunken Hoorays arrived and tried to seize him and strip him of his clothes. Slate, displaying more skill with his fists than one might have expected from his gangling appearance, flung them off and, helping Illya to his feet, pulled him into the porch, and slammed the gates. As he did so, the choirmaster emerged from inside the chapel and in pained tones demanded to know what they thought they were playing at. Their antagonists saw the game was up and retreated with mocking laughter.

The choirmaster led them to his rooms to treat Illya’s bleeding nose, and gave them a restorative sherry. Things might have been all right, if another Fellow of the College hadn’t arrived, suddenly, close on their heels. The choirmaster introduced him and he sat down with his sherry and looked at the two young men attentively.

The conversation then took a mysterious turn, and Illya became aware that he was being deliberately excluded from its secrets. It was a series of linguistic nods and winks which he was at a loss to interpret at first. Then he understood. This Mark Slate was being set up to befriend him for a purpose that was very clear – he was Russian, he must be watched. He wondered if they were aware of his military rank; almost certainly they were.

Before Slate had an opportunity to say anything, Illya rose and excused himself, glancing at Slate and nodding a little sardonically. With an oh-so-very-English politeness, his host saw him to the door of his rooms and, once assured that the Russian was on his way down the stairs, returned and shut the outer door. No-one else would disturb them now.

Illya had not the slightest interest in their cloak-and-dagger games. A junior officer of the Soviet Navy he might be, but it was the study of quantum mechanics that occupied his mind – whatever his superiors might hope, and for that matter what the Cambridge Secret-Service mafia believed.

Though he was the same age as Illya, Slate was still an undergraduate, having had to complete two-years’ national service before coming up to Cambridge. He was in the chapel choir – it had been choir practice night when they met – but Illya didn’t attend chapel, and was also in a different faculty. It should have been easy to avoid any contact with him, but their paths, hitherto completely divergent, now seemed to cross a lot.  

Slate was friendly, though not overly so, and he made no obvious attempts to find out what Illya was doing. Not that he would have understood it if he had – quantum physics isn’t readily accessible to many. Nevertheless, he sometimes asked him to join him for a beer at lunchtime, or in the evening. He persuaded him to go punting with him – Illya was quite good at it – but if he thought he would get to know this prickly Soviet, he was wrong. Illya’s defences were robust and impregnable. Nevertheless, Slate behaved as if they were good friends, “muckers” (whatever that was). Later, of course, Illya was busy, and in purdah to complete his doctoral thesis, and they met only occasionally when crossing the court or walking down King’s Parade.

He met him on only one other occasion before leaving Cambridge, and that was apparently accidental. Slate was coming out of Heffer’s bookshop as Illya was passing. A stilted greeting passed between them, and, learning that Illya was leaving, Slate offered his best wishes and shook his hand.

Illya could not resist saying, “I can let you have the exact timetable of all my trains between here and Murmansk, if you wish.”

“Kind of you, but no thank you. Have a good journey,” was all Slate said in reply – the well-bred Englishman, never at a loss – but he evidently recognised why the information had been offered.

*****************

What should have been a relatively simple surveillance job in Venice gave Napoleon pneumonia, and Illya a bad cold. They returned from Italy feeling very sorry for themselves. Napoleon went to hospital; Illya went home and nursed his cold with whisky and hot water. In the morning, suffering the additional discomforts of jet lag, he arrived in the office and was fairly promptly called to the Old Man’s domain.

His heart sank when he understood the full implications of Napoleon’s illness and withdrawal from duty. Mark Slate had been assigned as his partner.

During his brief period working in London, he had learned some of the tricks required for working with British secret service agents. The British class system was still the chief barrier, even though its obvious disadvantages had been so spectacularly displayed in the recent spy scandals. He wasn’t a gentleman (and never could be, in their eyes), but Cambridge was the key that opened the door – he was a Kingsman, which helped; but he was also reticent, not particularly clubbable, and, of course, Russian, which didn’t help at all. He also tended to be resentful and sullen when required to work with someone he didn’t like – he had avoided Mark Slate pretty much when he was there.

So, he barely looked up when Slate swept in, and when Mr Waverly introduced them they were both polite but curt in their acknowledgement of each other as past acquaintances.

Waverly, no fool, was perfectly well aware of their antagonism, and quite indifferent to it. Grown men had to get on with the job, and he expected them to get on with each other, no matter what. And they knew it.

*********************

Slate sat at Napoleon’s desk while they read the file. They hadn’t spoken more than a word or two since they left Waverly’s office.

“Illya…”

He looked up.

“Look, old man, we need to get on with each other – get over the past. Why don’t we go out for lunch together before going to the airport.”

“I wasn’t aware that we weren’t getting on.”

“Come off it. We haven’t said two sentences since this morning.”

“Very well, what do you want me to say?”

“Something like, Yes! Let’s go out for a meal together!”

“Oh.” His antipathy struggled with his manners, and lost. “All right, let’s go out for a meal together.”

“Such enthusiasm, I don’t know if I can take it,” and Slate laughed at the look of affront on his reluctant partner’s face.

***************

Getting conversation out of this tiresome Russian was near impossible. Mark almost gave up, and wondered how Napoleon had managed all these years. There was no point appealing to his sense of duty. The man would do his duty tight-lipped, and still not try to get on with his unwanted partner.

He had to think of some other way.

“Good pasta. There’s nothing as good in London,” he said, falling back on ordinary chat.

“No.”

Nothing doing. Now what? Another course came and went.

“Do you fancy a pudding?”

“Just coffee… Black.”

Of course. Black coffee. No sugar. Christ, nothing to sweeten his sour nature. Nothing would, probably.

They left the restaurant in silence and returned to collect their bags for the ride to the airport.

In the taxi, Mark said, “This floozy we’ve got to make contact with in Hamburg. Why does anyone think she can do this?”

Kuryakin turned to look at him. “Good question.”

“And what if she can’t?”

“I’ll have to persuade the Baroness to come over to our side instead.”

It was on the tip of Mark’s tongue to make a comment that might have put the whole operation at risk, but he bit it back and saw Kuryakin’s mouth twitch in an almost invisible feline smile, damn him.

****************

The airport was crowded, and it was when they were walking through to the check-in desks that Mark spotted out of the corner of his eye, something troubling. Kuryakin, with his highly identifiable gleaming hair, was ahead of him, and didn’t see the figure approaching so fast from the side. The man held his hand oddly at his side and at the last minute Mark suddenly saw the knife.

“Illya! Down!” he shouted, and flung himself at the running figure. They crashed to the floor, Mark uppermost, holding him down with his weight and trying to get the knife out of his hand. Illya, who had responded immediately to Mark’s shout, by flinging himself to the floor and rolling out of the way, picked himself up and looked round at the pandemonium. Shocked bystanders were screaming, or shouting for help.

Seeing Mark in trouble – the man had turned over and Mark could barely restrain his stabbing arm – Illya ran forward and seized the assailant’s wrist, twisting it sharply so that the knife fell harmlessly aside. He pulled him off his partner and hit him hard. The man collapsed in a heap. Picking up the knife, Illya helped Mark to his feet and released his arm.

Security men arrived, guns drawn, and approached the two agents who showed their ID. The security men dragged the assailant up from the floor, and indicated to the two agents to follow them.

Mark looked round for his partner and found Illya watching him with a curious look on his face.

“Do you know him? Who is he?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Illya replied, “a madman, or possibly one of the many people I’ve annoyed…” and he cast a sideways look at his partner. It was obviously a struggle. “Thanks,” he said.

“My pleasure. Any time,” Mark replied. “Thank you, too,” he added, and held out his hand. The hesitation was slight, but then Illya smiled, a genuine smile, and took it in a firm grip.

They had to miss the flight, and take the next one, but things had slightly changed between them. Not quite friends; just partners. They knew they could trust each other, anyway.

 

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