If there is one thing I hate more than the barrage that passes for conversation with Mundy, it is the interminable pauses whilst he silently plots his next verbal assault. My nerves were hardly helping my unsettled digestion and I pined for that lost marmalade, plaster or no plaster. We trudged along the Esplanade together, not a word passing between us despite his claim that he wanted a ‘little chat’. I had left Tom with instructions to find us new lodgings knowing full well that Nellie would take charge. This was a ploy on my part as, with Tom being used to the basic end of the accommodation spectrum, Nellie would seize the opportunity to find something she considered a “bit of luxury”. I was confident that Nellie’s idea of luxury would be my idea of so-so, and this seemed a good compromise.
We were passing the Jubilee Clock when Mundy suddenly turned and stepped over to a bench looking out across the bay and sat down. He patted the seat next to him, beckoning me to join him. I do wish he wouldn’t do that; as a former actor and producer he has a tendency towards theatrical affectations and does it deliberately to make anyone in his company feel uncomfortable. It’s his way of making sure he already has an edge on you. Mundy is, as you may have gathered, very good at his job. I glanced up and down the Esplanade and quickly scanned the windows in the buildings across the road behind Mundy. “You can cut that out, Trueblood, I’ve already checked. We’re safe.” If he said so then it would be true. We were being watched I was sure, but by his people and it wouldn’t matter how hard I looked, I wouldn’t find them.
“Safe? Define safe. I’ve already had a bomb chucked at me not an hour ago,” I grumbled as I joined him on the bench, sitting down on the metal slats and almost jumping up again in shock. In December they are jolly cold I can tell you.
Mundy laughed; it was extremely unpleasant, like the yapping of a hyena with wind. “You ass, Trueblood! You silly, pretentious ass! They weren’t after you!” He continued to laugh heartily, my look of incredulity making matters worse.
“But…but…,” I stammered, “the bomb…breakfast…who else?”
“Who else? Who else? Who else is staying at the guest house dear boy?” he cackled.
“Who? Tom? Not Tom, surely?”
Mundy’s expression changed in an instant, as though the sun had suddenly slipped behind the clouds. “Tom? Oh for Darwin’s sake, Trueblood. Morrison told me you were one of his best men. I see he spends far too long at the club and not enough time in the field.” Morrison is my Section Head. He is a man that lets nothing bother him. Literally. He spends all day at his club with express instructions that he is not to be disturbed. The rest of us just get on with our jobs. We don’t hear from him unless we are fired, and then only by telegram. I have no idea how he runs the Section but it seems to get results.
“If not Tom, and not me…Nellie?” I said.
“Nellie?” he sneered. “Darwin give me strength.”
My ego was deflating faster than a ruptured airship. I twiddled the ends of my moustache, an unconscious habit I have when stumped by a tricky conundrum. Who else had been at the guest house? The proprietor? He had a tendency to burn the toast and did not allow smoking in the lounge but this seemed unlikely to result in someone trying to blow him up. Wait! As we were leaving; the man on the stairs. “The beard?” I asked, quietly.
Mundy nodded. “Yes, the beard, as you so succinctly put it. That beard adorns the face of Freiherr Rickert von Klatz, a Prussian industrialist.”
“Baron to you and me.”
“Ah,” I said, and pondered for a bit. Mundy stared out at the sea, puffing away on his Rothschild. A few seagulls wheeled overhead, swooping and soaring on the breeze, making a hell of a racket as they squawked at each other. They looked like they were having fun. I wasn’t. “Um…,” I said.
Mundy half-turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Um…,” I said again. Oh for Darwin’s sake, Trueblood, get a grip. Mundy looked at me, his eyes penetrating deep into my addled skull. He exhaled loudly through his nose, the smoke tumbling from his nostrils only to be inhaled again through the mouth. It was quite horrible.
“Yes?” he said, again, with a colder edge.
“Who would want to blow up a Prussian factory owner and why?”
“Good, good, you’re starting to ask the right questions. I’m guessing you don’t get very involved in international matters, August?”
He had a point. “Mainly because you slap my wrist and tell me to keep my nose out if the Internal Affairs I’m investigating become external ones,” I whined, like a scolded schoolboy, which is somewhat unmanly for an intelligence officer.
Mundy chuckled, which sounded like puppies being dropped down a well. “Yes, of course. I really am rather good aren’t I. Now, I shall enlighten you. Our friend von Klatz is not just ‘factory owner’, as you put it, he is an industrialist and on a grand scale. Anything in Prussia involving steel will have been through one his many foundries and plants. If a Prussian soldier wields a rifle, he fires a Klatz. Field guns; Klatz. Anti-airship guns; Klatz. Naval guns: Klatz. Getting the picture?”
I mumbled a “Not really,” but Mundy kept going.
“If you’ll excuse the pun, in his field Klatz makes a killing. Get it? Never mind. Anyway, Klatz is here on business and we are keeping an eye on him. Which brings me on to my next point -,” his voice dropped to a low hiss, venomous and distinctly unfriendly, “- what in Darwin’s name are you doing here, acting the bloody hero?”
It was at this juncture I lost my normal self-control. I think the hot gins may have been partly responsible. “What am I doing here? I’m on holiday!” I screeched; most unbecoming. “On holiday; you know, get away from it all, relaxation, sand, the sea air, bombs for breakfast.” A sudden wave of suspicion coursed through me and I leapt to my feet. “Hang on a moment. The bomb; was that your work? Were you trying bump Klatz off? Did you know I was staying there?” I hissed accusingly, jabbing my finger in Mundy’s face. All credit to the man, he remained as cool a customer as I’ve ever encountered.
He gently batted my finger aside, smiled and said, “Do sit down, Trueblood, there’s a good chap. You’re making a scene.” I did as I was told. “Now, have a think and tell me what you think we would gain by blowing up Prussia’s foremost industrialist. Apart from an awful lot of paperwork and the risk of war, of course. Any ideas? Hmmm?”
“Nothing,” I conceded. “We would gain nothing.”
“Exactly,” Mundy agreed. “In fact, we would have everything to lose. Klatz is here ostensibly to spy on the newest addition to the fleet. He may say he is here for the arms convention in Dorchester but we know otherwise. We make it our business to know otherwise. And yes, we knew you were staying there, and no, we don’t go blowing up our own operatives, despite the temptation.”
“Oh,” I said. Mundy flicked the end of his cigar away, much to my disgust. It means that someone else has to pick it up. I think he quite likes the idea that other people, common people, have to tidy up after him. It goes with his superior air. To the amusement of both us a seagull swooped down and snatched up the stub and we were treated to the sight of a gull chomping on a still-glowing cigar. It flew off with the stub, leaving a faint trail of smoke behind it. I stayed quiet for a while. My pipe had long gone out so I tapped the bowl empty on the end of the bench, catching the ash in my hand and discretely dropping it into the flower bed behind.
“So who is trying to blow him up?” I asked.
“Who might want to assassinate the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of military armaments? Go on, three guesses,” said Mundy, rather mockingly.
“First guess, and no.”
“Um… that’s all I’ve got,” I admitted, fidgeting on the chilly slats. I was cold, hungry and still desperate for a cup of tea. What exactly did Mundy want?
“The Anti-War League.”
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“You heard correctly, Trueblood. The Anti-War League. The irony is not lost on me. However, the militant wing of the organisation managed to get himself blown up in the operation. They see Klatz as a threat to their vision of world peace, so they try to bump him off. Both of the remaining two thirds of the organisation are currently having man-to-man discussions with some of my less careful operatives.”
A nagging problem with the scenario was taking form in my mind and after a few minutes cogitation finally resolved itself into a coherent sentence. “Why would an extremely wealthy industrialist be staying in a seaside guest house? Why not the best hotel? Where are his servants staying? Why is he even here and not in Dorchester?”
Mundy smiled that sickly smile of his, that patronising one that seems to say well done little man. “You’re getting sharper, Trueblood. Careful you don’t cut yourself. Questions deserve answers -,” here he paused to whip out and light up another Rothschild, proving that he had a lighter all along, “- and I shall answer with a question; I take it you are not familiar with Prussian business and businessmen?” I professed that I was not. “Here in Albion Magna, wealthy men, and to some extent the women too, like everyone to know how well they are doing. They like to put on a show, be seen in the best clothes, at the best hotels, at the classiest resorts. In Prussia, however, they do not go in for the ostentation. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the nabobs wallow in gaudiness but the business world doesn’t really go for that sort of thing. They consider it vulgar, and many of them lead very plain lives, with little outward display of wealth. It’s almost as though they compete to see who can be the most modest. Mad, no?” Mundy blew a large smoke ring then continued. “So that would explain the guest house and lack of entourage. As for the location, it is extremely difficult to watch ships sail by from twenty miles inland. His excuse, it would seem, is that the sea air helps his chest. A martyr to his chest is Klatz. So much so that he has had lodgings near to every major naval dockyard in Albion Magna over the last eight months. Now, if you or I were feeling under the weather and needed to take the air, somewhere such as Saint-Tropez or Nice, somewhere fashionable and warm, would be just the ticket, would it not? I mean, which would you prefer? Sun and sand and all the ankle you could ogle, or cold, damp dockyards? I know which my doctor would prescribe.”
I had to agree with Mundy on this. Sitting on an icy bench, collar turned up against the chill breeze and watching a grey sea against a grey sky, I instantly felt colder as I imagined the sun beating down on a Mediterranean resort. Think what you like, Trueblood; an intelligence officer’s salary isn’t going to get you a holiday on the Riviera. “Isn’t it a bit obvious?” I enquired. “He must know we know what he’s up to.”
“Of course, August dear chap, of course. It’s all part of the charade. Someone of his standing is not getting within a hundred miles of anything of ours that we don’t want him to see and he knows it. However, he does create a distraction, keeping us busy and possibly diverting our attention away from something else, and we are sure he must have a network feeding him information. Our job is to make sure that it’s the wrong information.” At this point Mundy stood. Several pigeons that had been milling around our ankles in the hope of crumbs took flight. “Come, let’s walk. I’m getting cold, and when I get cold I get grumpy.”
Grumpier, I thought, standing and brushing sand from the seat of my Aquascutum. The damn stuff gets everywhere. We headed briskly down the Esplanade to warm up, walking parallel with largely empty, gloomy-looking hotels and guest houses. Mundy set a cracking pace and had me puffing. My nose, prominent as it is, remained cold whilst my cheeks soon grew flushed. Conversation was sparse, mainly because I couldn’t walk and talk at this speed. After ten minutes or so of this, when we were well away from the popular end of town, Mundy pointed to another bench. We sat.
“Now, where were we?” said Mundy, nonchalantly.
“Talking about a Prussian spy nearly getting blown up, I believe,” I replied.
“Ah yes. Of course. Not that Klatz is a spy in the conventional sense. Remember, he is a business man; he is interested in money. Industrial espionage is his game. He is studying our fleet to see where Prussia might be lacking so he can manufacture the missing equipment to sell to his country, whether it be an engine or whole battleship. If that makes him a patriot, well so much the better in his eyes. What we do is slip little snippets of information his way that will, ahem, inconvenience development. The odd miscalculation here, the amended blueprints there. The sort of thing that could cause, for example, an engine to fail quite spectacularly. With me?” Mundy was part way through lighting up yet another Rothschild and offered me one. I didn’t fancy it and would have to take my gloves off to smoke the damn thing which was not a great idea with my poor circulation but I couldn’t really refuse. The Foreign Affairs Section Head offering me a cigar? That is never going to happen again. Make the most of it Trueblood. I mumbled a thank you and allowed Mundy to light me up. Too heavy a taste for my liking; I much prefer my pipe.
“Now,” Mundy continued, “in order for Klatz to receive these little snippets he has to be very much alive. A man in a thousand pieces is no use to us. Therefore the other part of our job -,” I noted that Mundy always referred to our job, never my job, perhaps to distance himself from the responsibility, “- is to make sure that make sure people like Klatz remain in one piece. In a way we protect the enemies of the Commonwealth because it serves a greater purpose. It’s like chess on a grand scale, except that I always win.”
“So this morning’s incident was a bit embarrassing for you. A madman with a bomb nearly checkmated you. A good job I was on holiday here then. Rather saved your bacon,” I said, all too cockily. I knew I would regret saying it as soon as I’d finished.
Mundy went very quiet again and did that horrible thing with the smoke, his nose and mouth. His nostrils flexed and flared, his eyes remained fixed on the horizon. “The condemned man is often offered a final smoke,” he said quietly. “How’s the cigar?”
It suddenly tasted very bitter.
“You are correct when you point out the unintentional lapse in security with regards to Klatz, and yes, it was fortunate for us you were there. However, it was rather unfortunate for you that you were there as you are now exposed.” Mundy raised his arm and snapped his fingers. From apparently nowhere a man appeared, handed him a newspaper, and then melted away into the background again. Mundy tossed the paper onto my lap. It was the morning edition of the local rag with the headline AGENT TRUEBLOOD GIVES ANARCHIST TASTE OF OWN MEDICINE. A shiver went through me and refused to go away. Someone was treading on my grave, and had brought their family and friends along as well.
“Great Darwin, they didn’t hang about. It can’t have been much more than an hour ago it all happened. And it wasn’t me, it was Tom with the heroics!” Damn, damn, damn. Shouldn’t have flashed the badge to that constable. I should know better than to rely on a bobby for discretion.
“It’s a small, sleepy town. Something exciting happens and those presses start to roll. Accuracy never got in the way of a story,” said Mundy. “Puts you in rather an awkward situation doesn’t it? Working for the secret service when everyone knows who you are? Or it would, if it wasn’t for this -,” he handed me a telegram, “- it arrived for you at your guest house, or what was left of it. I thought it wise that you knew the contents sooner than later.”
I opened the telegram. TRUEBLOOD – YOU’RE FIRED + STOP + I NEVER DID LIKE HIM + STOP + NO, DON’T WRITE THAT + STOP + STOP WRITING + STOP + STOP, STOP + STOP + OH BUGGER THIS + STOP + MORRISON. If I’d felt cold before, it was nothing to what I was feeling now. The cigar made me feel sick. I could feel my stomach churning though there was nothing in it. I was grateful of the chill wind as I could use it as an excuse for any moisture seeping from my eyes. Fired I could almost accept, but Morrison never liked me? Why? What had I done? The rejection cut, and cut deep.
Mundy leaned over, glanced at the content of the telegram in my shaking hand. “Tough luck, old chap. I had a hand in it, of course, as I notified Morrison. He needs to know when his agents are compromised.”
“You did what?” I said, the coldness evaporating and turning to steam. “You unscrupulous bastard!”
“Tut, tut,” said Mundy, “now there’s no need for that, Trueblood. I expect high standards from my agents and that includes not abusing their superior officers.” He was rooting around in his coat pocket, puffing away merrily on his panetella, happy in my discomfort.
It was all too much. I leapt to my feet, scrunched the telegram into a ball and launched it towards the beach. As the wind was blowing in from the sea the effect was utterly pathetic and comical to anyone except myself. The ball flew straight back, pinged off my nose and landed in Mundy’s lap. I threw down the cigar and stamped on it. “You total cad! You got me fired! You went out of your way to get me fired,” I snarled. “You complete bounder! You – ,” something suddenly clicked, “ – sorry, what did you say?”
Mundy was offering me a small leather wallet. Even on a dull winter’s day like today the gold lettering and Commonwealth crest gilded into the cover glinted ever so slightly. “I said I expect high standards from my agents. Welcome to Foreign Affairs, August. I’ll have your old warrant card; you won’t be needing it any more.”