(Tana Standish, psychic spy, in Czechoslovakia – 1975)
The first in a series
To be published by Crooked Cat – currently in the publisher’s edit phase,
so it will be subject to change
so it will be subject to change
Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK
The agent who called himself Mr. Swann entered the Queen’s Hotel bar at 2PM, just as he had promised. In my business, I’d met a few spies and all of them were nondescript. After all, to be a good agent, you need to blend in, be unmemorable. Swann just didn’t fit that category, so I wondered if I was wasting my time on this mysterious appointment.
He was tall, dark and sanguine. In his early fifties, maybe a little older. His black hair sported a white streak on the left; a livid jagged thin scar continued from there at the hairline all the way down that side of his face to his chin. The bottle-green worsted suit was bespoke, the shoes patent leather. He wore gloves and carried a large brown leather briefcase. Removing a dark gray trilby, he nodded at me. Spots of summer rain had peppered dark blobs on his shoulders and hat.
As I stood to greet him, he gestured for me to remain seated and strode over. He limped ever so slightly, as if one leg was shorter than the other; I’m only a reporter, not a detective, and I certainly wasn’t going to measure his inside leg.
He’d implied he was still in the field but I was beginning to suspect that he’d been put out to grass. A bit harsh, I thought. Because of his physical appearance maybe nowadays he was a desk man at ‘Legoland’, the agents’ popular name for the headquarters building at Vauxhall Cross on the Thames.
Let’s be honest, he wasn’t going to melt into any background. Besides, these days he was the wrong ethnic type for infiltration. The Twin Towers atrocity changed several priorities and a few careers come to that. Why do we in the media insist on the shorthand ‘9/11’? Sounds more like a deodorant brand to me. What’s wrong with giving that terrible act of violence against the victims of over thirty different nations its proper name? Anyway, the world was not the same since then and now the clandestine services were mainly gunning for fanatical terrorists, not greedy traitors or misguided ideologists, though those sort probably still existed in the woodwork, waiting their chance to emerge.
Sitting opposite me, Swann smiled as the middle-aged blonde barmaid placed a whisky and dry ginger in front of him. Clearly, he was known in this place. Not promising, I thought, though obviously being prominent could also imply that you couldn’t possibly be a spy because spies are shadow creatures. Double blind, or whatever they call it.
Maybe that’s how the character James Bond got away with it for so many years, traipsing round the world using his own name more than the odd pseudonym. Now Quiller, he was much more realistic. Never did get to know his real name. And of course Quiller’s author, Adam Hall, was a cover-name for the late lamented Elleston Trevor. Still, those spies were fiction; Mr Swann was fact and studying me.
Swann’s eyes were a cold blue; one of them, I suddenly realised, was glass. You’d have to be quick to detect the movement but, in an instant, his single orb seemed to scan the entire room and its occupants. As it happened, I’d chosen a booth where we couldn’t be overheard.
Despite the very visible scar, it was obvious that he had undergone some plastic surgery: the aging skin round eyes and cheek contrasted starkly with the pristine sheen of his square jaw.
He lifted the briefcase onto his lap and clicked open the metal clasp. He fished out a bundle of paper. ‘Perhaps this manuscript would prove of interest, Mr. Morton?’
I liked the man at once. No skirting around the reason for our meeting, no small talk about the lousy British weather. Straight to the point.
He handed over about a ream of Courier font typewritten paper, secured by a thick elastic band. The corners were turned and the sheets had lost their whiteness. A bit like me, I suppose. It also reminded me of my rejected manuscripts – except there were no coffee-mug stains.
‘Have you heard of the Dobranice Incident?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘It was a while ago, I must admit.’ He’d never make a politician, I thought; they never admitted anything.
‘So when was this incident?’
‘Good God, the Dark Ages!’ If my shaky memory was to be believed, I was an idealistic nineteen-year-old, reporting the Melody Maker pop-scene at the time. I shook my head. ‘I wasn’t into world events then.’ I’m fifty-eight now and world-weary. Early retirement would be nice, but it wasn’t going to happen since the politicians had wrecked my personal pension. At least I genuinely liked writing – and getting paid for it. Though, on reflection, no matter how much I wrote, it didn’t get any easier.
‘The incident was trivialised,’ Swann said. ‘Made barely page three in the broadsheets at the time. A postscript, really.’
‘And this postscript – these papers concern that ‘incident’?’
‘Dobranice. Yes.’ He handed over a single sheet, a typed list.
I glanced at it. Some place-names I recognized as trouble spots from recent history, others I hadn’t heard of and the rest might well be places from a Pirates and Travellers game:
‘When you said agent, you didn’t mean travel agent, by any chance?’ I asked.
His mouth made a grimace but his good eye shone, betraying amusement. ‘Keith warned me about your – for want of a better description – sense of humour. No, that’s a list of places – where certain assignments were carried out.’
‘So this manuscript is about Dobranice, the top of the list?’
‘Yes. Top place on the list. Top story.’ He grinned lopsidedly. ‘Top secret.’
I took a good gulp of my cool San Miguel, just to remind me of sunnier climes. This hotel was one of the few places to stock imported Spanish beer. Most of the stuff was bottled in Britain and didn’t taste the same. I glanced at a window. Needless to say, it was raining again. A sultry summer, so the weathermen promised. Weathermen and politicians – don’t believe a word they say.
I nodded at the bundle of typescript, itching to get my hands on it, but I held back. ‘Why give this to me?’
‘Times have changed.’ He sipped his whisky. ‘The Old Order has gone now. Even if the thirty-year-rule allows them to release anything about the incident, I doubt if you’d ever see the full story.’
‘Well, thirty years have gone, haven’t they? I don’t recall anything being released about this Dobranice place, though.’
‘And I doubt if you will, ever. Anyway, whether it’s Prague, Dobranice or other assignments in Iran, Afghanistan, Argentina… Not everything is covered by the thirty year rule; some take longer to be released. The point is that they’re all about Tana. And we feel her story should be told now.’ The look in his eye seemed wistful, as if there was a history between him and this Tana person.
‘Tana Standish.’ He nodded at the pile of paper. ‘Read the manuscript – she’s in there.’ He looked sad, almost bereaved, the way he spoke about the mysterious Tana.
Blood throbbed in my temple. Every instinct I’d developed in the news-hunting game told me this might be worth a look. ‘You said "we". Who wrote this?’
‘Me. And a few others. Keith and Mike. Others. A group effort. Let’s just say that we downed a few drinks and got together a number of times after the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. I know, that’s a long time ago as well.’ His mouth curved. ‘Anyway, it made a pleasant change from dry assignment reports.’
‘But –?’ I offered. There always has to be a but.
He smiled again, thinly. ‘Well, it might be best to rewrite it as fiction, Mr. Morton. Just to avoid the stupidity of another Spycatcher circus.’
‘Or Stella Rimington’s Open Secret?’
‘Not so open, was it? In fact, not much action in her prose, I’m afraid. Now, Dobranice – it has more than enough action.’ His features turned rueful. ‘More than enough.’
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘those books were about the Security Service, MI5. This isn’t, is it?’
‘Indeed, you’re quite right. It’s a rather secret part of the Firm, actually.’
‘I’m not going to put any agents at risk by writing about this, am I?’
‘No, these adventures won’t figure in the revelations of Wikileaks, Assange or Snowden.”
‘I’m pleased to hear it.’
‘It might have fresh relevance, now that Mr Putin is keen to start a fresh Cold War.’
‘True. What do you want in return?’
He studied the remains of his drink and because I wasn’t psychic I couldn’t fathom what he was thinking, but it was more than his words: ‘Just the story. The story is the thing.’
Another question had been nagging throughout our clandestine meeting. ‘Why bring this to me? As much as I try spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, I’m not exactly well-known, you know.’
‘Jack Higgins turned us down.’
I glared and he grinned. ‘Just joking,’ he said. ‘You’ve been around the block, if you like, you’ve lived through these times, even if you didn’t know what was going on in secret circles. Not many do, if we’re honest. We’ve still got one of the most secret societies on earth, right here in good old Britain. Whatever happened to ‘Great’?’
‘Sold for a peerage, perhaps?’
He shook his head and smiled. ‘I don’t do politics. Not a good idea in our profession. But as I was saying, actually, Keith liked your articles for the Portsmouth and District Post.’
I didn’t for a minute believe a word of it. And yet... I fingered the manuscript in anticipation. It seemed too good to be true. I was being handed all this secret stuff on a plate.
‘All right, then,’ I said, ‘I’ll give it a go.’
‘Just do her justice,’ he said.
* * * *
Later, how I wished I’d met Tana Standish. People like me – and those accursed politicians – sit cozily at home with our petty complaints while men and women like her fight the good fight against evil. The Cold War may have gone away for a while, but we still need people like Tana Standish, Alan Swann and Keith Tyson. And they get no thanks. Mainly, their stories go unheard and unread. At the most, their achievements probably get a footnote in a newspaper.
After several months shut away from the world of today I have finished this book, which I have called The Prague Papers – the first chronicle of Tana Standish’s missions which presages several calamitous adventures with significant revelations from recent history. It is dedicated to all the secret agents who fight behind the scenes and behind the news.
Note: This is just a teaser. All of the Tana Standish books begin in a similar manner, with the secret documents being handed over... The novel is in the third person, however.