“Oh, no,” said Ian Fleming, stretching out his long legs and crossing his ankles. “I’m retired. No more of that snoop-and-mischief business for me. Talk to my brother. He’s still in the game.” He lifted his drink to his visitor. “Chin-chin.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything official, Fleming,” said his visitor, looking uncomfortable in his Bond Street pinstriped wool suit and waistcoat on this tropical afternoon; the sun was flooding the island with warmth and light as opalescent as Bombay gin. Even his signet ring, a massive knot of gold with a couchant wyvern cut into it, was too heavy for the tropics, suggesting Tudor or Victorian architecture and over-stuffed chairs under baronial displays. “That would be the point of it, old son. Nothing on the books. The essence of covert. No one would know. You’d be quite safe.”
“Perfect deniability, you mean,” said Fleming with a quick, hard smile as he reached for the packet of Players on the table and proceeded to light up. “No. I don’t see how I can do it, not without knowing a great deal more. I’m sorry, but I have other work to do.” He was wearing a light linen shirt and khaki trousers, more in accord with the warm, humid weather than what his guest had on. He was limber and lean, a good-looking man in his late thirties, well-mannered, properly educated, charming, perfectly at home in his Jamaica estate down a narrow private road on the edge of this cove that gave privacy as well as a spectacular view. “I have a great deal to do around here, as you are undoubtedly aware. I can’t leave the island johnnies to tend to it themselves—you know what they are; well-meaning but lazy, most of them, and needing supervision. I can’t walk away and hope for the best. You can see the place needs—”
“Someone must undertake the work, and do it circumspectly. This is not the same as Churchill’s missions to rid the world of Nazis who escaped Nuremberg, this is a more immediate and less settled problem, needing discretion as well as careful investigation,” said his visitor more sternly. “Like it or not, I know you are the very man for the job.”
Fleming angled his head to the side. “Yes? And how is it you came to this—wholly unfounded—conclusion?”
“Your record, of course. I had a squint at it last week.” His guest, who had remained standing since his arrival at the isolated house, now allowed himself to lean back against the nearest cabinet, a tall mahogany one with louvered doors. It had a matched fellow at the other end of the lounge where the two men were conversing and taking in the fine afternoon. “I have been looking over the secret files for almost a month and you are clearly the most qualified of any I have reviewed.”
“You mean the official file, or the unofficial one?” asked Fleming, his face showing no trace of emotion as a wraith of smoke curled by it and was gone.
“The most revealing one, of course; the one no outside eyes will ever see,” said his visitor. He pointed out beyond the open French doors to the verandah and the view of the water. “It was providential I had occasion to visit an old colleague on Jamaica—it has given me an excellent cover for my visit, and an opportunity to speak with you without drawing any attention to my presence.”
“Do you think that’s necessary?” Fleming asked.
“Precautions are always necessary for a man in my position,” said his guest with a faint, self-deprecating smile. “I can find it in me to envy you, Fleming. You have a wonderful place here. I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave.”
“Then why did you bother to come here? I’m a newspaperman now, and it suits me down to the ground; I am happy in my employment. I haven’t the least inclination to go back to that kind of work. Grubby, nasty, and dangerous, spying is. I made that clear enough after the war, I thought.” He set his glass aside. “A pity you had to come so far, but there it is.”
“I completely understand, my dear fellow,” said his visitor, his bland, square features turning ruddy from the heat. “But I fear it is rather beyond you. This isn’t a case where just anyone will do. England expects, and all that: just now, England expects of you. In this instance, I am very much afraid that your qualifications require you to return to field-work. It is very important. I cannot stress that enough.” He sighed.
“How important?” Fleming asked with an innocence that hid his purpose. “You keep hinting but you tell me very little. Don’t, for God’s sake, ask me to take your word for it, or accept what you say on trust. I’m not still wet behind the ears, you know. Explain what you mean by important.”
“Important enough that you will have authorization to kill if necessary,” said his guest, the gesture of his hand showing off his signet ring as if the mythical beast on it was adding its support. “This is no minor matter, Fleming. It is, in truth, deadly earnest. You must be prepared to kill when you take on this assignment. I have been given leave to grant you the protection of the authorization. In fact, I have the authorization for using deadly force with me.”
“You mean what they’re calling a license to kill?” Fleming asked, expecting an answer in the negative.
“Yes,” said his guest flatly, repeating, “We are in earnest, Fleming.”
“Good Lord,” said Fleming, doing his utmost to conceal his shock. “This must be of the first order of—”
“Yes, yes,” said his guest, making a gesture to show his determination to go on. “It won’t take long, and then it will be all over, unless the bloody Americans try to muck about. You never can tell how they’ll jump these days. You’ll have to deal with them as you think best when you’re in their country, as you will have to be. They could bring undue attention to this mission, if they get wind of it before we’re ready. Not much chance of that, though. President Truman wants to get rid of intelligence gathering as much as possible—that CIG bureau of his is hardly up to the job—and that maniac Hoover wants all such agencies under his control. So long as they bicker, we should not have to dodge them.”
“And why would I have to go to America?” Fleming asked.
“It seems some of the problem is centered in America. So you will have to visit there. If you can deal with them.” The flare of his guest’s nostrils suggested that he could not.
“They did their part,” said Fleming, giving credit where it was due. “It would have been difficult without them. You cannot deny that.”
“That they did, but tardily. And now it’s time they leave the field to the experts. Besides, these are British secrets being compromised. The Americans should stay well out of it. It’s too delicate for their style of espionage.” There was a hard glint in the visitor’s eyes.
“We didn’t despise them eight years ago,” Fleming pointed out, mischief in his attitude. “We asked them for their help, as I recall.”
His guest nodded slowly. “Well, that was different. And I must say, General Donovan did well enough during the War, all full of sneakiness and derring-do; it appealed to his sense of heroism, I believe. He had excellent men, and women, working for him, I’ll say that. He needed all the exuberance he could engender during the War, but this is different. The business of covert missions has no place for so reckless a man as he.”
“I couldn’t help but like him,” said Fleming, smiling slightly as he put out his cigarette. “Only met him briefly, of course, but he struck me as too enthusiastic. Rather like a very clever, dead-set hunting dog—thoroughly American, when you look at western films. Still, I take your meaning. His—um—cowboy hero approach to dealing with certain sorts of actions is ham-handed.” He studied his guest over the rim of his glass, thinking that this Whitehall bureaucrat was not as engaging as General Donovan had been.
“He is out of the picture, in any case,” said his visitor. “Through you can give the devil his due.”
“All right,” said Fleming. “We are agreed that this is not an ordinary case. We are also agreed that it is internal, and not to be bandied about beyond our immediate company. Am I right on that score?” He saw his visitor nod. “How much can you tell me about it?”
“I thought you were dead against it,” said his visitor. “Could it be that you are changing your mind?”
“Only insofar as I am curious,” said Fleming. “Perhaps I can advise you in some way that would be useful, without actually participating.”
“That is not enough reason to show you those files,” said his visitor stiffly. “Not if you only want to peruse them. You are, as you say, a newspaper-man now, and the secrets contained therein are not for unauthorized eyes.”
“It is the only way you will persuade me to change my mind. I don’t know what you expect me to get involved in, and I will not agree to anything until I do,” Fleming said, still at ease but with steely purpose under his facade of bonhomie. “If you will not provide me the information, I must suppose I am being hoodwinked. Sorry.”
“Must I do this?” His visitor was clearly flummoxed by the impasse. He twisted the golden couchant wyvern around his little finger.
“If you want my participation, you must,” said Fleming with a vulpine grin. “I will keep your confidence, if that’s your worry.”
“Yes, you will. You signed the Official Secrets Act, didn’t you, Fleming?” he asked, knowing the answer already, for everyone who had done covert work had signed it. He saw Fleming hold up his right hand and went on, “It is still binding on you, as you must know. You will have to hold everything I tell you—and the fact of this visit—in utter confidence.”
“I understand,” said Fleming. “I’ll abide by the terms, never fear.” He finished his drink and set the glass down again. “Everything you tell me will remain secret.”
“Very well,” said his visitor. “Then I want you to understand that we have been busy working on developing atomic weapons.”
“That isn’t very secret. They’re all hungry for A-bombs. Everyone who can is doing it. The Russians, of course. The Americans want to make theirs bigger and better. Probably the French, and the Chinese may be trying. Who knows, perhaps Canada is working on an A-bomb.” His mild sarcasm was met by an unfriendly scowl. “They all want one, since the War.”
“That’s as may be,” his guest said, dismissing Fleming’s flippancy. “The problem is, we seem to be losing some of our work to the Russians. I’m sure you’ve kept abreast of events at home, haven’t you? Russian spies everywhere. And not only them, which is the most distressing.”
“The Chinese?” Fleming suggested.
His visitor shook his head. “We need to determine who is doing the most damage, how much damage has been done, and stop it from happening again, preferably with as little public outcry as possible. This could be a very dangerous development, concerning atomic weapons and other military secrets.” He paused to stare at Fleming, as if the force of his gaze could provide persuasion. “You do see the importance of this situation, don’t you?”
“I should think so,” said Fleming, and whistled slowly, a single alarmed note that was rapidly lost on the soft Jamaican air. “Is any of this confirmed, or is it all rumor and innuendo?”
“Confirmed, I am sorry to say,” his guest told him. “I have the information with me if you care to look at it.”
Fleming let out a long breath. “You still mean you will show it to me only if I agree to undertake this venture, I assume?”
His guest gave him a wintery smile. “Something like that.”
Copyright © 2002 by Quinn Fawcett