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A middle-aged, stocky man with thinning, yellowish straw-like hair and rosy cheeks streaked with a fine network of capillaries, a clear giveaway of his occasional liking for a drink or two, was fast asleep when the telephone rang. Startled, he cast his hazy, crusty eyes over the square, digital clock right next to the telephone on the bedside table. It was quarter past five. His first thought was that he was still dreaming. But the damned device didn’t stop ringing. Having reluctantly left his dream, in which he had just scored a century at the local cricket ground on a beautiful, sunny day in early summer, on one of those translucent, thin days resembling the light blue membrane of a balloon, to the thunderous ovation of the assembled spectators, all of whom were holding black, vintage Bakelite telephones that were making a diabolical noise, he rubbed his forehead and eyes with his left hand as if wanting to make sure that this ringing sound was not part of his dream after all, and reached for the receiver with his right hand. On the other end of the line, a nervous voice croaked:
– Collin, is that you?
– Who else would it be? Who’s this?
– Jonathan… from Belgrade. What are you doing?
– What would I be doing at this unearthly hour!? I’m sleeping. What’s the matter?
– Bad news. I’m about to send a report to Headquarters. If you want to see it before everybody else does, slip your shoes on and hurry.
– All right, take it easy, I’m on my way. Can you at least give me some indication of what this is about?
– Following in the footsteps of the KGB, they decided to dispatch executioners to Old Blighty as well. Some serious shit is being stirred. They’ve already started taking out dissidents and exiles in Australia and Germany. I thought it wise to tell you as soon as possible.
Collin Montagu-Stuart reached for his thick, bone frame glasses with his left hand and rammed them onto his nose. He was wide awake.
– Thanks, mate! I owe you one.
– No problem. Just slip a bottle of twenty-five-year-old Glen Moray in the diplomatic pouch and your debt is settled – the voice concluded and hung up.
Half an hour later, Collin Montagu-Stuart, a lieutenant colonel in the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, entered the Century House building at 100 Westminster Bridge Road, showed his ID card to the commissionaire at the entrance and entered the lift. He pressed the button for the third floor, where the Confidential Communications Office was located. He knew Jonathan’s report would be there if the clerk on duty hadn’t already forwarded it to Management. On his way, he picked up two cups of coffee with milk and a dozen sachets of brown sugar from the coffee vending machine. He hoped that today was his lucky day and that the clerk on duty would be Brian Farrell, a schoolmate of his from their school days at Eton, whom he had owed twenty pounds to since last month, which he had deliberately lost in some senseless bet, hoping that paying off his debt would sooner or later be a good excuse to ask Brian for a small favour. The time has come to test the craftiness of his plan.
This day was indeed his lucky day. Brian was on duty.
– What are you doing here… and so early? – Brian, a bald, rotund dwarf, no taller than five foot two, with fleshy lips in whose corners saliva collected forming white clots, looked at him suspiciously. He stopped the tape, moved away from the giant counter and placed the large, black headphones around his neck like some sort of unusual collar.
– Good morning to you, too!
– Good morning. You do know that this is a restricted access office, don’t you? – the bald man continued without getting up from his desk cluttered with all kinds of complex devices and tape recorders and multi-coloured buttons and faders.
– Take it easy, old man. I’ve brought you your morning coffee and a bonus.
– What bonus? – Brian continued distrustfully.
– The twenty pounds you so brazenly stole from me in a bet not that long ago.
– Excellent! – the bald man rubbed his hands with glee and began to rip sugar sachets open, emptying them into a plastic cup with his coffee in it. He stopped after seven sachets, stirred the coffee with a plastic spoon and held out his hand: – Give us the lolly then!
– Hold your horses, mate! I need a little favour in return.
The expression of distrust reappeared on the bald man’s face like a shadow.
– I know! You’re short on money, so now you’d like to borrow the twenty you’re repaying me this very minute. Am I right?
– Not in the least. It’s nothing that drastic. As a matter of fact, I’m doing you a favour. Management’s having a meeting in half an hour – something’s cooking behind the Iron Curtain – so I’ll take all the relevant materials up with me so that you don’t have to.
– Well… I’m not sure if that would be according to the rules exactly!?
– Don’t worry, no one will know. No one from Management has arrived yet. I’ll put all the papers on the Director’s desk. He’ll think they came through the usual channels. By the way, it’s my birthday today. When does your shift end? I’ve invited a small group of a select few friends for drinks after work.
– I had no idea that you count me amongst your “chosen company of friends”! – Brian said, grinning contentedly, took out from the drawer a tan coloured folder with STATE SECRET printed in large red letters on the front cover and, still somewhat cautiously and hesitantly, handed it to Collin.
– We Eton boys have to stick together, don’t we, mate!? – Collin said, wrapped the folder in his newspaper, tucked it under his arm and headed for the door. Before walking out, he turned around and added: – Around seven. Does that time suit you?
– Around seven… what?
– Drinks at the club.
– Ah, yes… yes… yes… seven… – Brian stammered distractedly, putting a twenty-pound note in the inside pocket of his jacket and the headphones back onto his ears.
In the corridor, while heading for the lift in long strides, and pretending to read the newspaper, Collin opened the folder and rushed to find Jonathan’s telex from Belgrade. While waiting for the lift, he read it: “At a special meeting of the highest state apparatus, which was also attended by the heads of secret services of the individual republics, intelligence was presented on the activities of a large number of Croatian emigrants in the world, including the UK. The name of Martin Jesensky, a BBC journalist, is one of the names listed. With the aim of preventing the intentions of, as they say, extreme emigrant groups and individuals, the conclusion of the meeting is that, amongst other things, all measures should be taken to ‘neutralise’ them or, in other words, to ‘disable their hostile activities in the long term’. It can be concluded, with a high degree of certainty, that this is a plan for the elimination of the aforementioned, and that these measures were approved by Tito himself.”
The lift doors opened and, before entering it, Collin folded the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. Linda, the secretary of the Head of the Asian Desk, greeted him with a smile, and the young, ambitious and infinitely overbearing Deputy Director, Andrew Thounsand, asked brusquely not hiding his surprise:
– What are you doing here so early?
– Good morning to you, too! – Collin greeted him cynically.
– Good morning! – the young man quickly responded and continued – The morning briefing doesn’t start before seven.
– What a befitting outfit, very elegant – Collin said to the grey-haired secretary who was well over fifty, and then turned to young Thounsand: – I have some work to do before the meeting. I like being prepared for our morning briefings… what can I do, I’m old-school. And you know how it is… we old folk suffer from sleeplessness anyway – Collin replied casually and added in passing:
– By the way, if I were you, I’d grab a new tie before the meeting, or at least try to remove the traces of breakfast from the one you have on!
This was quite enough to throw young Thounsand completely off guard, catapulting him from his cocoon of smugness. Having hastily taken a handkerchief from his pocket, he began to frantically rub the greasy spot on his tie, moistening the handkerchief with saliva. “Serves you right, asshole!”, Collin thought to himself, “That’ll put you in your place!” He smiled at secretary Linda, greeting her with a nod of the head, noting that she too was smiling, having obviously seen through his well-tried trick, and as he was leaving the lift, he said to Andrew:
– See you at seven!
The young man, still busy rubbing the stain, did not respond.
Collin took the longer route on his way to the office to pass by the briefing room and put the folder containing Jonathan’s telex in the pile of other materials for the morning meeting ready at the head of the conference table.
Secretary Netra, a striking thirty-year-old black woman from Mauritius, welcomed him with a cup of hot tea and a Mars chocolate bar.
He threw his raincoat over the back of his chair, cleared piles of papers on his desk in an attempt to find a spot for his still warm cup of tea and chocolate bar, and briskly declaimed:
– If anyone asks for me… I’m not here. Get me everything we have on Martin Jesensky from the database, please. And call Brian Farrell at some point later today and tell him that my birthday party tonight is cancelled.
– Your birthday party!? In August!? Cancelled?
– Don’t ask! The less you know the better.
– All right, boss!
Ten minutes later, as he was sipping at his cup of fragrant Darjeeling, Collin skimmed through a file that read: MARTIN JESENSKY.
“A Croatian journalist and dissident… emigrated to Great Britain in 1972… In the same year, he got a job as programme assistant at BBC External Services… Married to a Czech woman, Libuša Hlaskova, a language assistant at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies… They have a son, Tomislav… He emigrated to Britain in the wake of the Croatian Spring, which he was an active participant in, as a result of which he was investigated by the Yugoslav authorities and sentenced to a short prison sentence… He has not been politically engaged in the UK… He is the author of a series of radio programmes on the Croatian Spring and its participants, which caused a lot of controversy in Yugoslavia… In 1976, he was granted British citizenship…”
He closed the file and handed it back to Netra.
– Put this away some place safe.
He took another sip of tea, set the cup down on his desk, picked up the early editions of The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian, and headed for the door.
– It’s time for today’s briefing and a powwow with the gods – he said to the secretary in passing and left his office.
As he was entering the “aquarium”, which is what the glassed-in office of the Management intended for the occasional meeting and conference was popularly referred to as by the employees, he noticed that young Thounsand had a new tie and that old, smug expression of calmness and self-confidence spread across his impeccably shaven face. Collin could picture him as a person who keeps an entire collection of completely new, unpacked ties, shirts and socks in his office, and who changes them when the need arises. The young man had some sort of folder open before him, in which he would occasionally underline something using a yellow highlighter. He sat facing the Big Boss. The Head of Analytics, Paula Williams, a middle-aged fake brunette, whose hands had already started being gnawed away at by arthritis, the Head of the Research Department, Francis Goodwood, an unkempt, wizened man in his fifties, whose right-hand fingers had completely yellowed from his chain-smoking habit, the Head of Operations, Duncan McEwan, a grizzled man in his sixties impeccably dressed in a three-piece dark blue suit with discreet red stripes, a silk handkerchief folded in his right breast pocket and a gold pocket watch with a chain and cover, which he would occasionally take out of his vest, open, check the time, close and put back into the pocket of his vest, and some guy from the Language Department who gave the impression that he had wandered into the “aquarium” quite by accident, as if aware of the fact that he didn’t belong there, which he would soon start apologising for – had already arrived.
Having thrown the newspaper onto the table in front of him, Collin nodded in the Director’s direction, uttered his name in acknowledgment: “Maurice!”, took a seat, and added in a low voice, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
Thounsand looked up from his folder, pretending not to understand what old fart Collin prated on about, and instantly got back to his highlighting and his most pressing task, reflexively and quite unconsciously touching the knot of his tie as if to check that it was still in its proper place.
– Good. Now that we’re all here, let’s start today’s briefing – finally the stocky man with thick dark brown hair spoke up, whom Collin addressed as Maurice upon entering. He took off his thick, bone frame glasses and started wiping the lenses with a paper tissue. Having put his glasses back on, he continued: – You will all receive a portfolio of materials relevant to today’s item, so I shall only briefly summarise the basic points. You’re all familiar with the increased activity of foreign agencies, and by that I’m referring to those beyond the Iron Curtain, in the countries of Western Europe. Their activities have recently spilled over to Great Britain as well. We’re still working strenuously on the Markov case and, judging from this morning’s telex that we received from our man in Belgrade, it seems that we could soon have problems with another person employed at the same institution. You’ll find a copy of the Belgrade telex in the materials distributed to you after the briefing. All information is strictly confidential and must not leave this room. In short, it seems that the Yugoslav authorities intend to follow in the footsteps of their KGB mentors and start eliminating political emigrants around the world. This assertion, which has been put forward by our man in Belgrade, has also been confirmed by sources in Australia and Germany. What we should be particularly concerned about is the fact that the target is again, it seems, a journalist working at the BBC External Services. Additional aggravating circumstances are the current geopolitical state of affairs and Great Britain’s strategic interests in that part of the Balkans. Ergo, this matter must be handled delicately.
At that moment, Marry Donahue, the Director’s secretary, a tall blonde with an elongated face dominated by big, protruding teeth and a bumpy, aquiline nose, entered the “aquarium” and handed out to the attendees green folders with the materials just announced. The alarm bells that started ringing in Collin’s head as soon as the Director mentioned the “geopolitical state of affairs” and “strategic interests” made him immediately open the folder and quickly skim through the materials. He noticed that the information about who gave the order to Yugoslav agents to carry our operations against emigrants was omitted from the transcript of the telex from Belgrade, and that the fact that Martin Jesensky is a British citizen wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the summary of his biography.
– When I say that this case must be handled delicately – the Director continued – I am primarily referring to the fact that an official visit of a high-ranking British delegation to Belgrade is at present being prepared as a prelude to Tito’s return visit to Buckingham Palace as part of this year’s VE Day celebrations.
Collin Montagu-Stuart could no longer remain silent at that moment:
– Maurice, could you be a little more specific? When you say that this case must be handled delicately, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean to say that we should disregard the fact that the agents of a foreign power are looking to eliminate their political dissenters on our territory, that we should not displease Tito’s regime, because the Palace is enchanted by the charm of that communist dictator, so we will allow his agents to do as they please on our territory, or do you perhaps mean to say something else?
The reply arrived from across the table. Andrew Thounsand couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay Collin back for his remark about the stain on his tie and to ingratiate himself with the Director at the same time.
– First of all, we don’t know what their intentions are at present. And secondly, who says that they’re getting ready to eliminate their dissidents on British soil!? I know, Collin, that this is your territory, no pun intended, but aren’t you a bit too paranoid about it all?
– Young colleague, – Collin retorted, infusing his voice with an appropriate dose of cynicism – you are absolutely correct to note that we do not reliably know whether they’re planning to carry out executions on British soil. But given the context of recent cases in Germany, Bušić and Kostov in Paris, not to mention Australia, and the case of Markov in London in particular, I think that talk about paranoia, whether mine or anyone else’s, is hardly the appropriate approach. Personally, I’d rather we ensure ourselves against every possibility than later regret having missed something. Wouldn’t you say that that is a far better approach?
– Our analyses show that the threat is indeed real and that caution is entirely justified! – Paula Williams added, rubbing her sore joints. – All murders of Croatian emigrants in Germany, as well as of Bušić in Paris, were carried out by the agents of the Yugoslav State Security Service UDBA.
Thounsand just lowered his head and attended to his highlighter.
– All right then, we will continue to monitor the entire situation closely. Paula, have your team do another analysis in the light of the latest developments, and we will make a decision about what measures we will take based on the updates – the Director interjected. – If there are no other pressing matters, that would be all for today. Thank you all. – the Director closed the meeting and stood up. It was a sign for the others to leave the “aquarium”. The guy from the Language Department was the first to rush out. He was followed by the Head of the Research Department and Paula, then the Head of Operations and Thounsand. As Collin turned towards the glass door of the “aquarium” to leave, he heard the Director’s, he thought, tired voice calling for him:
– Collin, would you mind staying? I need you a sec.
– Yes, Maurice?
The Director waited for the automatic doors of the “aquarium” to close behind Andrew Thounsand, and motioned Collin to the chair next to his, adding after a dramatic pause:
– You were a bit harsh on your young colleague. I remember that, at his age, you were just as ambitious and self-confident as he is. What’s been bothering you?
– I have no issues with Thousand whatsoever. In fact, I haven’t got either the time or energy to think about him.
– So what seems to be the problem then?
– The problem, as you put it, is the fact that a number of senior colleagues conduct themselves in a way that I would never have expected, Maurice.
– I’m all ears…
– New analyses? So, we will make decisions about what to do based on new information? In whose interest exactly is dragging this whole thing on endlessly? And if it is in someone’s interest – why?
– It seems that Andrew was right after all. Haven’t you gotten a bit paranoid as you’ve grown older!?
– Why was the information that it was the highest position of power in Yugoslavia that issued the order to eliminate Croatian dissidents who emigrated omitted from the summary of Jonathan’s telex?
The Director just shrugged his shoulders.
– And why has no mention been made in Martin Jesensky’s brief CV of the fact that the man has been a British citizen for several years? Are these facts irrelevant for deciding on the measures to be taken for his protection? Come on, Maurice, please! I know that these are your last days here, and that a replacement has already been appointed, but shouldn’t the fundamental principles remain unchanged? Once upon a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, we knew who the good guys and who the bad guys were. We knew who was on our side and who was on theirs. We took care of our own and protected them. What has changed?
– Higher-level politics… state interests… some of our interests are more important than some other of our interests… I just do what I’m told – the Director’s voice was again heavily imbued with fatigue.
– Are you telling me that we’re ready to sacrifice Jesensky for higher state interests?
– The Palace’s order is not to aggravate the Slavs and their Marshal! I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, but my hands are tied! You will be overseeing this case personally. Get in touch with Jesensky. Tell him only as much as he needs to know. Create the impression that we’re doing everything within our power. Reassure him that there is no cause for concern, that everything’s under control. And then we’ll see how things will unfold. Sounds good?
– So, that’s how it is!? – Collin said and now it was his turn to feel severely fatigued.
He stood up, picked up his newspaper and folders from the table, and headed towards the glass door of the “aquarium”.
– Perhaps it really is time for me, too, to retire. What do you think, Maurice?
The Director just stared sullenly at the nails on his right hand without saying a word.
While still at the door, as he was entering his office, Collin said to his secretary Netra:
– Get me young Peter Gillian on the phone.
– He’s been suspended… ever since the Markov case! You know that.
– I know. That’s precisely why I need him. I need someone who’s got time to spare. For an entirely personal matter. Besides, Peter was made a scapegoat for what had happened in that case. I’m convinced that someone sabotaged Markov’s protection, and so the weakest link in the chain was blamed for it.
A few minutes later, the telephone on Collin’s desk rang.
– Peter’s on line 2 – he heard Netra’s voice and pressed the lit button with the corresponding number.
– Peter!? Collin here. I need to talk to you. Can you meet me at our pub today at around 3 pm? We need to have a quick chat.
– I’ll be there at 3!
– Thanks. See you there.
At exactly three o’clock in the afternoon, Collin Montagu-Stuart turned from York Street into Mepham Street and entered The Hole in the Wall pub. While still at the door, he instantly caught sight of the familiar face of a thirty-five-year-old man with brown, thinning hair and broad, strong shoulders sitting at a table in the corner. As soon as Collin entered, the man folded the open edition of The Times and stood up, extending his hand in greeting.
– How have you been these days?
– I’ve been trying not to bore myself to death.
– Have you had lunch yet?
– I’m not hungry. But you go ahead. Please, don’t mind me.
– Could I interest you in a bowl of soup perhaps!?
– Well, if you insist…
Collin ordered two cream of broccoli and potato soups, some bread and butter, and a pint of Abbott. The colonel knew that Peter wasn’t fond of beating about the bush, so as soon as they sat down, he explained what the meeting was all about.
– I need you for a half-private matter. We have a situation similar to the Markov case… The life of a journalist, a dissident, but this time of a Croat, who also happens to work at the External Services, has been openly threatened. What’s more, he’s a colleague of Markov’s. My guess is that they’ve been emboldened by their successes in other countries, so they’ve now decided to extend their operations to Great Britain as well. We’ve received intel that they may be targeting Martin Jesensky. We’ve been briefed on it today, and if my view is not mistaken, I think that higher-level politics decided to burn Jesensky, so as not to upset the Yugoslav authorities, whom the Palace wants good relations with. A high-ranking delegation will soon be making an official visit to Yugoslavia, after which their Marshal will come visit us at the invitation of the Queen herself. As has been suggested to me directly, I should just turn a blind eye to this entire case. Even the fact that Jesensky is a British citizen is not, it seems, a strong enough argument to grant him full protection.
– And how do I fit into all this? – Peter interrupted the thread of Collin’s story for a moment.
– I’ll play the part assigned to me. As for your part, no one needs to know about it, except me. Your task will be to keep an eye on Jesensky around the clock and watch his back. And when I say ‘around the clock’, I do literally mean around the clock! We can’t have assassins walking around our cities and eliminating British citizens because of some “high politics”… regardless of what they think and regardless of the games our political leaders are playing.
Peter Gillian nodded his agreement. They spent the rest of the afternoon sipping beer and chatting away about cricket.
Translated by: Ana Janković
 From W. Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Zagreb, 1969).