Heart of Danger
'Back again?' Yes, he was back again. Back again in Library. A smile for the supervisor that was not returned, as it had not been returned on either of the two days that he had been in Library the previous month, nor the two days of the month before that. Henry Carter's smile was brief, just enough to be polite. He looked for a table that was free. 'Train was late, I'm afraid,' he said mildly. He wiped the rain from his scalp. 'It's a dreadful service.' He was the interloper, really, an unwanted male in a feminine world, and he supposed that he inhibited conversation on men, cystitis, brassieres, mortgage rates, curtain hanging, school meals, Gilts versus Equities, tampons, whatever women talked about these days. The table that was free was placed furthest from the small supply of natural light permitted to filter through to the half basement floor of Library. Pretty poor light anyway because the windows were of blast-proof glass that distorted and were copper-tinted to block the electromagnetic signals from the computers being monitored by any electronic surveillance from across Vauxhall Bridge. Different from his day. Seemed to have managed without lead-lined rooms and copper-tinted windows and computers in silicon casings and fingerprint recognition locks on interior doors, managed pretty well, and kept a few secrets
… He should not complain. He found space on the coat stand for his overcoat. His pension, even index-linked, was inadequate. He stood his umbrella, dripping, against the wall. The two days a month back in the Library were welcome, well, damned necessary. At the free table, watched by the girls and the women and their day shift supervisor, he unlocked his briefcase. The old one, of course, the one that he had carried day in and day out for twenty-three years from Waterloo Station and along the pavement beside the river and into the concrete tower of Century House, with the EIIR gold print faded from the flap. The morning newspaper, crossword started on the train, was first out. Then his sandwiches, cheddar and pickle and made by himself. Then his thermos (milk and sugar and sufficient for four measures). Then the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a pleasure to be saved for the hour's statutory lunch break. If the RSPB had been prepared to have him for more than a single day a week, working on their membership register, then he would not have needed to grovel in gratitude for two days a month in Library… The supervisor stood over his table. She had the file in its cardboard folder clasped to her shallow bosom. She apologized, without sincerity, 'It's a bit of a mess.' Well, there were so many files these days that were a bit of a mess. Old files needed tidying and editing before being fed to the computer disks. Henry Carter was good at tidying and editing which was why he was called back those two days a month and sat at a table away from the natural light. He supposed that the women regarded the part-time labour as a threat to their own work security, because there was never a greeting, never any friendship. 'I expect we can sort it out… Interesting one, is it?' 'I wouldn't know.' The file was dropped on the table. She turned and walked away from him, clattering her heels on the composite flooring. There had been carpeting in Library at Century House. Carpet had been good enough for the old building, not for the Babylon on Thames that was the new monstrosity at Vauxhall Cross. Too vulgar, too flash, for a headquarters building for the Secret Intelligence Service, inappropriate… He peeled the elastic band from the file's folder. Words, typed and handwritten and printed, were leaping at him. He looked up at the ceiling, at the battery of recessed lights. A little indulgence, but Henry Carter lived with nostalgia. Somewhere close by, perhaps in the annexe, perhaps already transferred to disk, would be the files of operations that had involved him from the start, when he had not just been the road sweeper, hired at 5.47 an hour for sixteen hours a month, to clear the litter of others. A little tremor, as there always was when he indulged himself. No need for a retired has-been, some never-was, to be called in to sift the files of Henry Carter's operations… He recalled the days when he had controlled a man sent across the inner German border to Magdeburg. He remembered the night long interrogation when he had reduced a desk head, one of their own, to a weeping and shamed creature. Decent files he had left behind him. He… They were watching from behind their silly screens. It would have been a good day to have been up on the former railway line at Tregaron, mid-Wales, because it was just the right time of year for the rare red kites, Milvus milvus, to be feeding. Glorious birds.. He dropped his head. He began to read. The file was, indeed, a mess, no order and no shape. He turned the pages fast. Fifteen typed sheets, four faxes, nine Foreign and Commonwealth Office signals, thirteen foolscap sheets covered by three different sets of handwriting, and a buff envelope of photographs. The old desk warrior gutted the pages, his training taking over. Henry Carter would have said if he was asked, and he never was, that there was a narcotic addiction from a file that was fresh to him. He was hooked, caught. Almost without looking up he called to the supervisor. 'I'd like a map, please.' 'Of what?' Because of what he had read, because of the images already in his mind, a scratch of irritation clawed him. It was not a joke, nor was it mischief. 'Hardly the sea front at Bognor Regis, no thank you… Large scale, 1:1000, if that's possible. Former Yugoslavia, what they call Croatia. The area that the United Nations Protection Force designates as Sector North…' He turned back the sheets of paper spread now haphazardly across the table. He was reaching for his thermos flask and Henry Carter's elbow, the leather patch on his sports jacket, caught the envelope that held the photographs. The envelope fell from the table. The photographs spilled. He looked down at them. He looked down onto the grotesque image of the young face. Worse than those of the old man shot to death on the ploughed strip beside that revolting German fence. Worse than those of the hanged Iranian woman suspended from a hideous construction crane in Tabriz. He shuddered. He barely heard the shrill voice. 'A map like that, you'll have to wait until tomorrow for it. Can't get it before tomorrow. You know, Mr. Carter, it's not our job to…'
He bent to pick up the photographs. He gazed into the face. He wondered if she had been pretty before the decay of burial had swollen the features. His fingers were scrabbling for the photographs and were unresponsive, and he felt the cold sweat streaming to the small of his back. His body weight swayed in the chair. He gulped deep air. He lifted the photographs onto the table and then he gripped the edge of the table that he might restore his balance. Too damned old for it.. .
The voice beat at him. 'Are you all right, Mr. Carter?'
The woman at the computer desk nearest him giggled out loud. It was the giggle that probably saved him from fainting. It made his anger surge. It was rare for him to let his temper show. The woman was feeding her face with squares of milk chocolate. He took the photograph that was second from the top of the pile and walked the five strides, briskly, to the woman's desk and he laid the photograph on her keyboard. A photograph of a young face with a head wound and a throat wound and a close-quarters bullet wound. The woman belched chocolate over her blouse.
Henry Carter went back to his table.
He called across the silence, 'I'm fine, thank you. Tomorrow would be grand for the map.'
He settled. For a moment he drummed his fingers on the table surface, then he reached again for his thermos and poured himself a half-measure into the plastic cup. He drank. He took from his briefcase a bag of sharpened pencils and biro pens in three colours. The moment had passed, it was as if the photographs had ambushed him. He began to search the sheets of paper for date stamps and he laid them out over the width of the table and then began to number them in red from the first date. Wouldn't take him long to knock the file into shape. If the map came he would most certainly be finished by tomorrow lunch time. That would be excellent. It would give him time to be out of London before the afternoon rush for home, and on the road comfortably for the Powys mountains, and the railway line from which the red kites, Milvus milvus, could be seen.
The date stamp on the first sheet of paper was 3 April 1993. For a moment, idly, he tried to remember what he would have been doing that day twenty-three months before, and failed. The paper was letter-headed 'Physicians for Human Rights'… It was easy for him to picture it.
There was a milage and a lane and foul mud, and a grave. '
The area for the digging was outlined by a rude rectangle of white tape. The rectangle was approximately ten