Here’s an excerpt from chapter 2 of The Prague Papers, the first published adventure of Tana Standish, psychic spy, in Czechoslovakia, 1975.
Perversely, it was good to be back after seven eventful years – dangerous and secret years in far-flung places like Karachi, Tehran, Elba, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Mombasa. Caution and deceit were second nature to her, she reminded herself and grinned. Yes, I feel quite at home again.
The sound of the heels of her calf-hugging black boots added to the general hubbub in the echoing terminal. Tana moved through the wide glass-partitioned entrance then lowered her travelling-case on the steps and checked her watch.
The British Airways flight had been a couple of minutes early – a favourable tail wind. She’d allowed for a much longer delay in customs, so now she had at least ten minutes to wait before Laco arrived with transport to take her the seventeen kilometres into the city.
The very air seemed grossly oppressive – and it wasn’t the weather.
At least the rain had stopped, although the grey heavens stayed overcast. From the aircraft, she’d seen the lights shining between the rows of Charles Bridge’s Baroque statues, while the Vltava, edged with rain-sodden trees, reflected the city’s winking night-lights and numerous turreted spires and domes. A beautiful city that seemed to benefit from Communist neglect; it lacked modern hoardings, neon advertisements and garish shops and she felt it was probably better for it.
After all these years it was easy enough for her to keep in check her distaste for the Soviets and their system, which had seemed to get even more corrupt. Odd, but Sir Gerald had openly regretted Kruschev being deposed the year before she joined Interprises – “Not as shifty as Brezhnev. We thought we had a chance to work with the Russians,” he’d said. “Now, after over a decade of Brezhnev, I’m not so sure any more.”
She really felt for the oppressed Czechs and Russians; they were regularly lied to and deprived of so much; all so that the Soviet hierarchy could live well. Where there was oppression, there was fear, betrayal and personal danger.
Still, so far she had no reason to doubt Merrick’s assessment was accurate. “Minimal risk,” he’d said. “A straightforward repair and rebuild assignment. I thought you’d enjoy it; a return to see old friends.” Then he’d added, with a lecherous smirk, “Laco Valchik’s still in charge, he picked up the pieces and got Torrence out. A close call, by all accounts.”
As soon as she’d heard about Torrence, Tana had contacted Enid Shorthouse, the Interprises filing clerk in the basement Library. Enid had been with Sir Gerald since the beginning in 1963 and, it seemed, had a memory second only to Tana’s. She knew all the Interprises field agents and their traits. Her filing system was separate to the Ops Officer’s and that’s the way she liked it. Idiosyncratic. Only she could find anything. She was supposed to provide documentation and information backup for the agents in the field. But Enid took her job too seriously to limit herself, so whatever she could find out she put in her files – on paper and in her memory.
“You know, Enid,” Tana had remarked, “all Moscow Centre has to do is to kidnap you. Interprises might as well fold up then.”
Chuckling, Enid leaned on the enquiries counter, drooping breasts encased in a My Weekly pattern blue-green bobbled cardigan, well past its best. She lifted her spectacles from her pointed nose and rested them among the permed curls of her blue-rinsed hair. “You’re the only agent who knows the full extent of my knowledge, my dear.” She winked. “The Ruskies’d have to be psychic to know, really.”
Tana grinned. “Let’s hope so. Now, what can you tell me about Reginald Torrence?”
“Torrence!” Enid’s normally kindly features suddenly transformed, lines pronounced around her glaring eggshell blue eyes. “He’s a buffoon. I don’t know why Sir Gerald allowed him to stay after he bungled Izmir.” She calmed down, waving a hand airily. “Fine, he’s good in the classroom, knows the theory, but his people-skills are nothing to write home about, I can tell you.”
Tana wondered why Merrick had sent in that buffoon, as Enid called him. Apparently, he bungled the whole operation from the word go. All he had to do was consolidate the underground faction, obtain any useful information, and then return with technical requirements they might have. Instead, he blew it, the whole fabric torn at the seams, one cell disrupted, others in hiding and fearing the worst.
At least Torrence got out – thanks to Laco and his network’s survivors.
Was it Torrence’s fault or was there a mole in Laco’s organisation?
But Tana knew there was another quite unthinkable possibility.
She still puzzled over what happened to Toker in Istanbul last month – and Enid hadn’t been any help, either, save saying that Dudley Toker had been a real professional and a gentleman as far as she was concerned. “I tell you truly, Tana, I really miss his wonderful smile and chivalrous airs. Not much gallantry about since the Sixties.”
A chilly sensation down the nape of her neck returned Tana abruptly to the present.
The man was obviously watching her. Hatless, close-cropped black hair, greying at the edges. Stout, short, a broken bent nose, flaring nostrils. He was so blatantly an agent of the StB, their political security police, no doubt sent from his rat-hole in Bartolemejská where they’d taken over the old convent and eighteenth century church of Saint Bartholomew. One day, maybe the church and convent would echo to hymns and psalms again instead of the plaintive cries of tormented citizens. But she wouldn’t hold her breath.
All StB agents wore civilian clothes, yet they might as well have displayed placards with neon lights. It was a combination of their unrelaxed poses, their strained unawareness and something indefinable, almost as though they smelled of decay and corruption.
On the other hand, he could be KGB – they were little better, confident in their superiority and their ability to instil fear into the populace. And if so, then she was probably blown before she started.
She was aware that in the last six months Interprises had lost two other experienced agents, besides Toker. Cornelius in Helsinki and Segal in Berlin. Her thoughts naturally turned to the existence of a mole inside Interprises. Sir Gerald had created Interprises twelve years ago, specifically because MI6 seemed riddled with Soviet double agents.
Only a week earlier, James Fisk had obtained authorisation for Tana to experiment with a new probing technique on the staff of Interprises. It had risks to her mental well-being, he warned, but she said she was willing to try. The technique used a prototype bio-feedback system combined with remote viewing. Then this mission cropped up. Bad timing, really. Still, when she got back, they’d set it up and with any luck it just might help identify the mole, if there was one.
As the watcher’s black rodent-like eyes momentarily latched onto hers, Tana’s brain echoed with a loud throaty scream, a woman in extreme agony:
Completely naked, the woman was strapped to a chair, her skin blemished with electrode-burns, lathered in glistening sweat, trembling violently.
The stark moment passed. Tana didn’t superficially react at all; the mental image had been too swift. But her pulse and heart rate quickened.
The sensation was not wholly alien to her; it was akin to previous bouts of precognition. But it was also possible that it could have been a captured impression from the watcher’s sewer-like mind. He looked old enough to be an apprentice during Stalin’s time. Probably reliving his stimulatingly vile memories.
A sibilant hiss of tires on the wet tarmac caught her attention.
End of excerpt
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