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A DUEL AT THE LANGHAM HOTEL, 29TH OCTOBER 1938
Rachel White flung the cab door open, tossed the driver a banknote and dived into the rain.
She ran across the gloom of Portland Place towards the gilded mountain of light that was the Langham Hotel. The downpour tore at her hat. Her heels slipped and twisted on the wet pavement. The raindrops tasted like fear.
Fifteen minutes earlier, her ectophone had rattled out a message: KULAGIN IN A DUEL COME AT ONCE. She had imagined a .22 hole in Yakov Mikhailovich Kulagin’s forehead, all the dark secrets in his brain leaking out and washing away, dragging her twenty-year career in the Secret Intelligence Service with them.
She took the stairs to the arched entranceway of the hotel two steps at a time.
Stairs, marble floors, thick carpets, Renaissance pillars, ladies in ermine and pearls, spirit-armoured mediums channelling New Dead visiting from Summerland. She collided with a waiter and toppled a tray of champagne glasses. Curses and laughter followed her. Then she was through a set of French doors at the top of a broad staircase and outside once again. She stopped and breathed in the heady smell of roses in the rain.
A small crowd in evening wear huddled beneath umbrellas in the garden, watching two men. Both were in their shirtsleeves and completely drenched, holding silver pistols. One of them, a fair-haired youth, inspected his weapon with the calm detachment of a marksman.
The other was Kulagin. His shirt was open at the collar and stained with deep, dark red along his ribs. His pistol hung limply from one hand as if forgotten. He saw Rachel and performed a mock salute, a mad broad grin on his face.
She hurried down. The duellists were getting ready again. Kulagin’s second, a thickset man in a trilby hat, was talking to him, gesturing, pleading: Major Allen, the Service officer on Watch detail tonight. The Russian defector brushed him away and walked back to the centre of the garden, swaying slightly.
Allen touched the brim of his hat when he saw Rachel. There was a look of desperation on his ruddy face.
‘What are you doing?’ she hissed. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’
‘I tried my best, Mrs White, but it was too late. He insulted Mr Shaw-Asquith’s poetry and then assaulted him. It is a matter of honour now.’
‘It is much worse than that. If he gets himself killed and Hill’s boys in the Summer Court pick him up, Sir Stewart will have our heads!’
‘We might still have a chance. Mr Kulagin’s injury is not severe, it is the third shot coming up already, and Mr Shaw-Asquith may declare satisfaction afterwards.’
The young man had to be Julian, the eldest son of Sir Patrick Shaw-Asquith, the managing director of Baring Bank. He wore an expensive, fashionable waistcoat that imitated the coppery weave of spirit armour. A dark purple bruise marred one cherubic cheekbone. The way he stared at Kulagin suggested that no satisfaction would be granted before death.
‘Major, I take it you will explain to Sir Stewart how either the son of his club associate or our best NKVD source in years ended up with a bullet in the brain?’
Allen raised his bushy eyebrows. ‘I did not wish to attract attention. You see, we don’t want the whole world to know that the Crown has something to do with this—’
‘I understand the need for discretion, Major,’ Rachel interrupted. There were a lot of ex-colonials like Allen in the Service, infuriatingly dense regarding aspects of intelligence work that did not involve torpedo boats or sword canes. ‘You were right to call me. I will talk to him.’
But it was too late. A red-faced maître d’ stepped up and lifted a handkerchief. Kulagin and Shaw-Asquith tightened their grips on their weapons, eyes fixed on the wet white cloth. Allen rocked back and forth on his heels as if he was watching a cricket match.
‘We will just have to see what happens this round. Fair play and all that, eh?’
Rachel swore under her breath. Her mouth was dry and her stomach tingled. This must be how the field operatives whose reports she pored over felt when they had to make lightning decisions. She grabbed Allen’s arm.
‘Fair play can wait. Delay them. I need a few minutes.’
‘But what shall I say?’
‘Anything! Inspect his wound, make sure his weapon is loaded, whatever it takes. And make sure you tell me before they start again, no matter what. Move, man!’
She used her sharpest tone. It triggered some military reflex in Allen, who nodded stiffly and waved at the maître d’, making a show about inspecting Kulagin’s wound. In his thick brown coat and hat, he looked like a sparrow amongst hawks. Groans and boos sounded from Shaw-Asquith’s side of the audience.
In the commotion, Rachel stepped behind a large rosebush and took her ectophone from her purse. She shook out the headphone wire and screwed a black rubber bud tight into her left ear. Then she pressed one of the four preset buttons on the Bakelite device. It hummed in her hands as it heated up. She bent over to shield it from the rain and hoped the temperamental machine had stayed dry. A hissing noise was followed by the high-pitched, familiar wailing of the newly dead—sure to gather around any transmitter—and then she had a connection.
‘Registry clerk on duty,’ a thin male voice said in her ear.
Beyond the rosebush, there was more booing and jeering.
‘Authorisation F three six one.’
‘Go ahead, Mrs White,’ said the spirit clerk.
‘I need whatever we have on Julian Shaw-Asquith, right now.’ She spelled the name out carefully. ‘Any leverage? It’s urgent. And what kind of poetry does he write?’
‘Searching now. Please wait.’
It would take the spirit only instants to thought-travel to the Registry in Summerland and locate the information in the aetheric stacks—something that would have taken her hours when she joined the Secret Intelligence Service as a junior clerk at the end of the war, when everything was still on paper. Even so, the wait felt like an eternity. Her gut clenched every time a raindrop bounced off a rosebush leaf.
It was a relief when the ghostly voice returned.
‘We do not have much. Mr Shaw-Asquith belongs to what the magazines colourfully call the Cursed Coterie, a group of high-born and glamorous young men and ladies. He has engaged in some indiscretions, including an affair with Lady Julianna Manners—’
‘That’s no use. What about the poetry?’
Suddenly, she heard the voice of the maître d’ again.
‘Gentlemen, take your positions, please!’
What was that idiot Allen doing?
‘Fashionable, Russian-influenced, depressing, traces of Pushkin, although I’m no expert. “Oh Hell of ships and cities/Hell of men like me/Fatal second Helen/Why must I follow thee?”’
Pushkin. Russian tragic romance. That would have to do. Rachel yanked the earbud out, stuffed the ectophone in her purse and ran back towards the duelling field. Kulagin and Shaw-Asquith stood ready, eyes fixed once again on the white cloth in the maître d’s hand.
She elbowed her way through the crowd, tore off her coat, tossed her drenched hat away and shook out her dark hair.
The handkerchief fell. The two pistols rose in unison. Rachel screamed and lunged forwards, into the line of fire.
The gunshots echoed in quick succession, rapid and metallic, like two keystrokes of a giant typewriter. A bullet buzzed past her cheek. Another struck a flagstone near her feet, leaving a smell of crushed rock in the air. She slipped on the wet surface and nearly fell.
‘Madam! Please get out of the way!’ Shaw-Asquith’s voice was shrill. Rachel ignored him and ran towards Kulagin, who stared at her, eyes wide.
‘Yakov! Lyubov moya!’ she shouted, in the best Russian accent she could manage. ‘Do not do this, not for me, I am not worth it, I would just follow you to Land of Summer, please let it go!’
She flung her arms around Kulagin’s neck.
‘Stop this nonsense right now or the deal is off,’ she hissed in his ear. ‘And let me do the talking.’
Amusement dawned in the Russian’s dim eyes. Hesitantly, he lowered his weapon and wrapped his other arm around Rachel. She nestled close to his thick body.
Shaw-Asquith had also lowered his pistol and was staring at them, confused.
‘Sir, please let matter rest,’ Rachel said. ‘Please forgive my poor Yakov, he was not in his right mind. We quarrelled, and he was simply mad—your beautiful words must have reminded him of how I hurt him, do not hold it against him, I beg you. And now he is wounded, my poor Yakov, poor zvezda moya … it is my fault, my fault!’
She poked Kulagin in the ribs on the uninjured side.
‘She … she is right,’ the Russian growled. ‘Sir, please accept my humble apologies. I did not know what I was doing.’
‘Well, then.’ Shaw-Asquith flicked wet blond locks off his forehead. ‘You take back your words about my mother, sir?’
‘Then, before these witnesses, I declare that I have received satisfaction.’
Scattered murmurs rose from his side of the crowd, but Shaw-Asquith raised a hand and silenced them.
‘My lady. Your intervention was most timely. Would you care to join us for a drink as a peace offering?’
‘I thank you, but I must see to my Yakov’s wound, and … other injuries.’
A camera flashed and Rachel pulled Kulagin in for a deep kiss to obscure his face. His lips were cold. The liquor taste was nauseating, but she held on until the crowd cheered.
The best way to keep the real story away from the press was to give them a better one.
She took Kulagin’s hand. Major Allen ploughed a path for them through the crowd, holding an umbrella above their heads, and then they were back in the glorious glow of the hotel’s ballroom, warm like summer after the garden’s rain.
Half-dragging, half-carrying Kulagin between them, Rachel and the major took the elevator to the fourth floor and escorted the Russian to his room, number 433.
It was a business suite, small but luxurious, with dark wood-panelled walls, thick patterned carpet and a mahogany desk. Kulagin sat down heavily on the couch next to the window, leaned back and looked at Rachel.
‘So, Mrs Moore, are you planning to continue where we left off?’ he asked in Russian. Moore was the alias Rachel had been using during their interviews.
‘In a manner of speaking,’ Rachel said in the same language, then switched back to English. ‘Major Allen, would you be so kind as to fetch a first-aid kit?’
‘Shouldn’t he see a doctor?’ the major asked.
‘Let me find out how bad it is first. Yakov Mikhailovich, please remove your shirt.’
Smirking, Kulagin unbuttoned his shirt and grunted when he pulled it off. His skin was dough-white and the fleshy folds of his paunch rolled as he moved, but his hairy arms and chest were strong, bear-like.
One of the shots had grazed Kulagin’s ribs. The wound was not deep but it started bleeding again when he lifted his arm for Rachel to inspect it. Beneath the liquor, he smelled strangely fresh, of fine hotel soap and light cologne.
She fetched a small towel from the bathroom and told him to apply pressure to the wound until Allen came back. Then she poured him a glass of water. He drank it slowly, setting the glass down between sips, one crooked arm holding the bloody towel like a broken wing.
The view of Regent Street through the window was dissected into an orderly golden grid by the Faraday cage wires that kept unwanted spirits out. The heat from the radiator beneath the window made her damp clothes hot and uncomfortable.
Then it hit her.
I was nearly shot, she thought. I could have died. A quick flash of red pain, and then falling, that’s what it was supposed to be like.
Her hands started shaking. Her heart pounded. There was no reason to be afraid, she chided herself. She wanted to go to Summerland one day, after all. But not like this, not in a messy, random, foolish way, a victim in a boys’ shooting game.
Kulagin lifted his glass. ‘It appears we could both use something stronger, Mrs Moore. I hope you are not unwell. A drink will warm you up. That fop Shaw-Asquith was right about that, at least! And you should get out of those wet clothes.’
Rachel folded her arms to hide her trembling hands and forced herself to smile.
‘You are absolutely right, Yakov Mikhailovich. I will join you in just one moment, wearing something more comfortable.’
Rachel closed the bathroom door behind her and took off her soaked skirt and blouse. They made a dark pile on the floor. The Service was a boys’ world and it helped to dress like a nun. Shivering, she wrapped herself in a heavy bathrobe that was far too big for her. Her hair was a mess. She fumbled in her purse for a brush, focused on the mirror and straightened the thick black tresses with rapid strokes, squeezing the handle in a white-knuckled grip. After a while, the repetitive motion and the gentle pull on her scalp calmed her down.
She wiped off the rain-ruined makeup and studied her reflection with a critical eye. Shorter than she would have liked, with a desk clerk’s posture. Tired grey eyes. Smooth, pale complexion that even a childhood in Bengal had not touched—her best feature. Her husband Joe said it made her look like a photograph. At least that was something. Given the way the case was going, she was unlikely to remain wrinkle-free for long.
The whole thing had been a disaster from the start. When Kulagin showed up at the gates of Wormwood Scrubs and stated that he was a Soviet illegal who wanted to defect, no one actually knew what to do with him. The only thing her superiors at the Winter Court were able to agree on was that the opportunity should be seized before the Summer Court got a whiff of it.
Her own Section F—Counter-subversion—was assigned to formulate a debriefing strategy, led by her immediate superior, Brigadier Harker. Unsurprisingly, Vee-Vee, the head of Terrestrial Counter-intelligence Section V, and Liddell, the deputy chief, both decided to butt in and claim their share of the glory. Crowded by three senior officers, Kulagin clammed up and claimed that a sugar cube they offered for his tea was a poisoning attempt. A furious Harker left the subsequent interviews to Rachel, making it abundantly clear that he was expecting results.
The only thing she had to show for the two weeks of sullen interviews in the Langham’s gilded birdcage was a short list of Russian assets in Britain, mostly code names the Winter Court already knew. All her experience told her that there had to be more. For years, she had argued that they needed direct human intelligence on the Soviets, not just the signals intelligence the Summer Court gathered, and this was her chance to prove her point.
But time was running out. Tomorrow, Rachel and the major would file their reports. Harker, Liddell and Vee-Vee would take one look at them, decide that the Russian was too volatile to be useful, trade him to the Americans for chickenfeed and send Rachel back to her desk to pore over endless files on angry Irishmen.
Unless there was a way to make Kulagin talk before dawn.
Copyright © 2018 by Hannu Rajaniemi