The trouble with uncovering a traitor in the service wasn’t limited to the obvious. It also made the upper echelons of government suddenly nervous and inclined to see treachery everywhere. In the wake of the revelations about Edward Tyler, certain portions of SIS were being plagued by such concern in the shape of one deceptively harmless and mild-mannered man from Counter Intelligence.
“You survived,” said Burnside, when Willie Caine walked into his office. “That’s something, I suppose.”
Willie spread himself out in the chair opposite. “Wasn’t that bad, after all. He seemed a nice enough sort to me.”
“What, Palfrey? Don’t you believe it.”
“Asked me about my hobbies, that sort of thing. I told him I was developing a late interest in dental surgery. He was more sympathetic than some people around here.”
“It’s a front,” said Burnside. “Man’s got a mind like a steel trap and a death grip to match. Once he’s got his sights on you, you don’t get away.”
“If you say so.”
“They say he’s rarely wrong, though,” Burnside added. “Take what comfort you can from that.”
“He’s not got to the point of seeing Reds under the bed?”
Burnside raised an eyebrow. “If he has, we’ll hear all about it when C gets this report.”
“Next, are you?” said Willie.
“I know, I know,” said Mr Palfrey, entering the office with a vaguely apologetic air and a smile. “One can’t help but get the feeling of shutting stable doors long after the horses have bolted, but if our superiors command, the best we can do is to get it over with as soon as possible.”
Mr Palfrey sat down on the chair and with precise movements, set about opening his briefcase, placing his notepaper on the desk, and pulling a pen out of his breast pocket. Burnside wouldn’t have been surprised if the man had stopped and dusted down the chair and desk first.
“So, I shall be as brief as I can.” He looked across at Burnside. “It isn’t a pleasant topic, after all.”
Mr Palfrey smiled again. No, thought Burnside in disgust, it would be truer to say that Mr Palfrey bloody well twinkled back at him. He a dark look at the phones on his desk, willing one or both of them to ring and cut short this waste of everybody’s time and money.
The telephones didn’t ring, however, and Mr Palfrey had proceeded carefully through several questions, going over Burnside’s file with him, and then talking through what had happened with Edward Tyler. He made no indication of what he thought of the answers, even those where Burnside had ceased being curt and switched to actively being rude. He merely jotted down a few notes in tiny writing, angled away just enough so that Burnside couldn’t make out any of it from the other side of the desk.
“I am sorry about Edward Tyler, of course,” said Mr Palfrey, all quietness, and unbearable and unwarranted compassion. “A brilliant officer, derailed by that one unfortunate incident right at the beginning. Tragic, one might go so far as to say in this case.”
Burnside shrugged. “Who isn’t sorry? Not much anyone can do about it, except keep it all under our hats.”
“Quite. However, I must go over the last sequence of events once more, if you’ll bear with me – memory like a sieve –”
“Just ask,” snapped Burnside. “If you had a memory like a sieve, you wouldn’t be doing this job.”
Mr Palfrey raised his eyebrows. “My goodness, Mr Burnside, I wasn’t led to believe that you indulged in flattery as a rule.”
“Thank you,” said Mr Palfrey, and smiled yet again. “You went out there to bring Tyler back?”
“But you failed to do so.”
“And why was that?” Mr Palfrey looked up, his pen balanced ready on the notepad.
“You know why. The KGB girl had given him a cyanide pill. I couldn’t get there in time to stop him using it.”
“Considering the options, a fortuitous circumstance, one might say.”
“Depends where you were standing,” said Burnside.
“You failed to carry out your orders.”
Burnside scowled. “I did my job.”
“Is that the same thing, I wonder?” asked Mr Palfrey, and it sounded as if he was suddenly talking to himself.
Mr Palfrey walked out into the corridor, shutting the outer office door behind him with a perturbed look on his face. Burnside had been the last, so everything here was now done and dusted and he merely had to finalise his report. There was, thankfully, no immediate sign of any other traitor here, even among those who had worked directly under Tyler. He had never expected to find anyone in Ops; interviewing some of the main staff there had largely been a formality.
He was, however, debating in his mind what needed and did not need to be said when he penned a few lines with regards to Neil Burnside’s interview. There was a question in his own mind: loyalty to the service necessitated obeying the rules, but there was always the matter of how one interpreted those rules – or stretched them. Rules, Mr Palfrey knew, could be bent every now and then without breaking the spirit of them. He considered his options and decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth.
“Mr Caine,” Mr Palfrey said, having hunted down that elusive creature known as a ‘Sandbagger’ in its Hutch. “I hope you don’t mind, but as you were so kind earlier, I wondered if you would indulge me by answering one last question. Off the record.”
Willie eyed him warily. “When people say something’s off the record, I get nervous. Still, no law against you asking. If it’s unofficial, I suppose I’m allowed to tell you to get stuffed?”
“Why not?” said Mr Palfrey. “It’s an insufferable question, I’m afraid, so you certainly should. I merely wondered what you made of Mr Burnside – as your immediate superior, that is?”
“You’re right,” Willie returned. “Definitely insufferable. Probably liable to get me the sack, too.”
Mr Palfrey paused, seeming to rethink his approach for a moment of two, his forehead furrowing and then clearing again, as he perched on Sandbagger’s Two’s currently vacant desk. “Well, whatever your conclusions are concerning him, you must have staked your life on them repeatedly. You’re happy to do so?”
“Yeah. Ecstatic,” said Willie. “Look, I just do my job, like most other people round here.”
“You’re willing to believe he will back you up on an op?”
“That’s his job,” Willie said. Then he glanced over at Palfrey, and relented slightly. “He’s a bastard, yeah? But when you’re in a hole and you need someone to fight dirty for you, who better?”
Mr Palfrey gave a laugh. “He might be a bloody minded bastard, but he’s our bloody-minded bastard, is that it?”
“Something like that,” said Willie. “Was that what you wanted?”
Mr Palfrey nodded. “More or less. You’ve put my mind at rest,” he said, slipping lightly down from the desk and heading for the door. “For the moment.”
And, donning his hat, coat, red scarf, and umbrella, like the very caricature of an unassuming English civil servant, Mr Palfrey left the building.