MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Like a lot of things that later become very complicated, the situation began very simply.
A few days short of his thirty-sixth birthday, Christopher “Kit” Carradine—known professionally as C. K. Carradine—was walking along Bayswater Road en route to a cinema in Notting Hill Gate, smoking a cigarette and thinking about nothing much in particular, when he was stopped by a tall, bearded man wearing a dark blue suit and carrying a worn leather briefcase.
“Excuse me?” he said. “Are you C. K. Carradine?”
Carradine had been writing thrillers professionally for almost five years. In that time he had published three novels and been recognized by members of the public precisely twice: the first time while buying a pot of Marmite in a branch of Tesco Metro in Marylebone; the second while queuing for a drink after a gig at the Brixton Academy.
“I am,” he said.
“I’m sorry to stop you,” said the man. He was at least fifteen years older than Carradine with thinning hair and slightly beady eyes that had the effect of making him seem strung out and flustered. “I’m a huge fan. I absolutely love your books.”
“That’s really great to hear.” Carradine had become a writer almost by accident. Being recognized on the street was surely one of the perks of the job, but he was surprised by the compliment and wondered what more he could say.
“Your research, your characters, your descriptions. All first class.”
“The tradecraft. The technology. Rings absolutely true.”
“I really appreciate you saying that.”
“I should know. I work in that world.” Carradine was suddenly in a different conversation altogether. His father had worked for British Intelligence in the 1960s. Though he had told Carradine very little about his life as a spy, his career had fired his son’s interest in the secret world. “You must have, too, judging by your inside knowledge. You seem to understand espionage extraordinarily well.”
The opportunist in Carradine, the writer hungry for contacts and inspiration, took a half step forward.
“No. I roamed around in my twenties. Met a few spies along the way, but never got the tap on the shoulder.”
The bearded man stared with his beady eyes. “I see. Well, that surprises me.” He had a polished English accent, unashamedly upper-class. “So you haven’t always been a writer?”
Given that he was such a fan, Carradine was intrigued that the man hadn’t known this. His biography was all over the books: Born in Bristol, C. K. Carradine was educated at the University of Manchester. After working as a teacher in Istanbul, he joined the BBC as a graduate trainee. His first novel, Equal and Opposite, became an international bestseller. C. K. Carradine lives in London. Perhaps people didn’t bother reading the jacket blurbs.
“And do you live around here?”
“I do.” Four years earlier, he had sold the film rights to his first novel to a Hollywood studio. The film had been made, the film had bombed, but the money he had earned had allowed him to buy a small flat in Lancaster Gate. Carradine didn’t anticipate being able to pay off the mortgage until sometime around his eighty-fifth birthday, but at least it was home. “And you?” he said. “Are you private sector? HMG?”
The bearded man stepped to one side as a pedestrian walked past. A brief moment of eye contact suggested that he was not in a position to answer Carradine’s question with any degree of candor. Instead he said: “I’m working in London at present” and allowed the noise from a passing bus to take the inquiry away down the street.
“Robert,” he said, raising his voice slightly as a second bus applied air brakes on the opposite side of the road. “You go by ‘Kit’ in the real world, is that correct?”
“That’s right,” Carradine replied, shaking his hand.
“Tell you what. Take my card.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, the man lifted up his briefcase, balanced it precariously on a raised knee, rolled his thumb over the three-digit combination locks and opened it. As he reached inside, lowering his head and searching for a card, Carradine caught sight of a pair of swimming goggles. By force of habit he took notes with his eyes: flecks of gray hair in the beard; bitten fingernails; the suit jacket slightly frayed at the neck. It was hard to get a sense of Robert’s personality; he was like a foreigner’s idea of an eccentric Englishman.
“Here you are,” he said, withdrawing his hand with the flourish of an amateur magician. The card, like the man, was slightly creased and worn, but the authenticity of the die-stamped government logo was unmistakable:
FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE
OPERATIONAL CONTROL CENTER SPECIALIST
A mobile phone number and email address were printed in the bottom left-hand corner. Carradine knew better than to ask how an “Operational Control Center Specialist” passed his time; it was obviously a cover job. As, surely, was the surname: “Mantis” sounded like a pseudonym.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’d offer you one of my own but I’m afraid writers don’t carry business cards.”
“They should,” said Mantis quickly, slamming the briefcase shut. Carradine caught a sudden glimpse of impatience in his character.
“You’re right,” he said. He made a private vow to go to Ryman’s and have five hundred cards printed up. “So how did you come across my books?”
The question appeared to catch Mantis off guard.
“Oh, those.” He set the briefcase down on the pavement. “I can’t remember. My wife, possibly? She may have recommended you. Are you married?”
“No.” Carradine had lived with two women in his life—one a little older, one a little younger—but the relationships hadn’t worked out. He wondered why Mantis was inquiring about his personal life but added “I haven’t met the right person yet” because it seemed necessary to elaborate on his answer.
“Oh, you will,” said Mantis wistfully. “You will.”
They had reached a natural break in the conversation. Carradine looked along the street in the direction of Notting Hill Gate, trying to suggest with his body language that he was running late for an important meeting. Mantis, sensing this, picked up the briefcase.
“Well, it was very nice to meet the famous author,” he gushed. “I really am a huge fan.” Something in the way he said this caused Carradine suddenly to doubt that Mantis was telling the truth. “Do stay in touch,” he added. “You have my details.”
Carradine touched the pocket where he had placed the business card. “Why don’t I phone you?” he suggested. “That way you’ll have my number.”
Mantis snuffed the idea out as quickly and as efficiently as he had snapped shut his briefcase.
“Perhaps not,” he said. “Do you use WhatsApp?”
Of course. End-to-end encryption. No prying eyes at the Service establishing a link between an active intelligence officer and a spy novelist hungry for ideas.
“Then let’s do it that way.” A family of jabbering Spanish tourists bustled past pulling a huge number of wheeled suitcases. “I’d love to carry on our conversation. Perhaps we can have a pint one of these days?”
“I’d like that,” Carradine replied.
Mantis was already several feet away when he turned around.
“You must tell me how you do it,” he called out.
“Make it all up. Out of thin air. You must tell me the secret.”
Writers have a lot of time on their hands. Time to brood. Time to ponder. Time to waste. In the years since he had given up his job at the BBC, Carradine had become a master of procrastination. Faced with a blank page at nine o’clock in the morning, he could find half a dozen ways of deferring the moment at which he had to start work. A quick game of FIFA on the Xbox; a run in the park; a couple of sets of darts on Sky Sports 3. These were the standard—and, as far as Carradine was concerned, entirely legitimate—tactics he employed in order to avoid his desk. There wasn’t an Emmy Award–winning box set or classic movie on Netflix that he hadn’t watched when he should have been trying to reach his target of a thousand words per day.
“It’s a miracle you get any work done,” his father had said when Carradine unwisely confessed to the techniques he had mastered for circumventing deadlines. “Are you bored or something? Sounds as though you’re going out of your tree.”
He wasn’t bored, exactly. He had tried to explain to his father that the feeling was more akin to restlessness, to curiosity, a sense that he had unfinished business with the world.
“I’m stalled,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky with the books so far, but it turns out being a writer is a strange business. We’re outliers. Solitude is forced on us. If I was a book, I’d be stuck at the halfway stage.”
“It’s perfectly normal,” his father had replied. “You’re still young. There are bits of you that have not yet been written. What you need is an adventure, something to get you out of the office.”
He was right. Although Carradine managed to work quickly and effectively when he put his mind to it, he had come to realize that each day of his professional life was almost exactly the same as the last. He was often nostalgic for Istanbul and the slightly chaotic life of his twenties, for the possibility that something surprising could happen at any given moment. He missed his old colleagues at the BBC: the camaraderie, the feuds, the gossip. Although writing had been good to him, he had not expected it to become his full-time career at such a comparatively early stage in his life. In his twenties Carradine had worked in a vast, monolithic corporation with thousands of employees, frequently traveling overseas to make programs and documentaries. In his thirties, he had lived and worked mostly alone, existing for the most part within a five-hundred-meter radius of his flat in Lancaster Gate. He had yet fully to adjust to the change or to accept that the rest of his professional life would likely be spent in the company of a keyboard, a mouse and a Dell Inspiron 3000. To the outside world, the life of a writer was romantic and liberating; to Carradine it sometimes resembled a gilded cage.
All of which made the encounter with Mantis that much more intriguing. Their conversation had been a welcome distraction from the established rhythms and responsibilities of his day-to-day life. At frequent moments over the next twenty-four hours, Carradine found himself thinking about their chat on Bayswater Road. Had it been prearranged? Did the “Foreign and Commonwealth Office”—surely a euphemism for the Service—know that C. K. Carradine lived and worked in the area? Had Mantis been sent to feel him out about something? Had the plot of one of his books come too close to a real-world operation? Or was he acting in a private capacity, looking for a writer who might tell a sensitive story using the screen of fiction? An aficionado of conspiracy thrillers, Carradine didn’t want to believe that their meeting had been merely a chance encounter. He wondered why Mantis had declared himself an avid fan of his books without being able to say where or how he had come across them. And surely he was aware of his father’s career in the Service?
He wanted to know the truth about the man from the FCO. To that end he took out Mantis’s business card, tapped the number into his phone and sent a message on WhatsApp.
Very good to meet you. Glad you’ve enjoyed the books. This is my number. Let’s have that pint.
Carradine saw that Mantis had come online. The message he had sent quickly acquired two blue ticks. Mantis was “typing.”
Likewise, delighted to run into you. Lunch Wednesday?
Carradine replied immediately.
Sounds good. My neck of the woods or yours?
Two blue ticks.
Copyright © 2019 by Charles Cumming