He was unmistakable. A tall, remarkable gentleman sitting with a gentle, thoughtful expression on his face watching the traffic going by. Nothing particularly unusual in the street I was, to be sure. But his very posture, relaxed, yet alert, made him stand out from the rest of the well-heeled crowd.
I made my way towards him, my strides hurried. The place was the famous Avenue de Champs Elysée in Paris, and the restaurant in which my meeting was to take place was the Bastide Blanche. Only the filthy rich ever frequented this place, and I, for certain, did not qualify. As such it was the first time I’d ever set foot inside any restaurant in the Champs Elysée. The quiet, sober atmosphere and delicious smells were completely in contrast with the throbbing music and excitement of the nightclubs I preferred. I adjusted my tie uncomfortably, wiping my palms on my jacket as I did so.
He looked up as I approached, and his eyes crinkled with warmth as he smiled. I offered a hesitant smile back as he waved me to a seat.
“So tell me,” he began before I’d even sat down properly, “Why did you want to meet me again?”
“A slight problem I had, sir,” I replied quietly. “I’d request your guidance, seeing that you’re much more experienced than I am.”
“That’s putting it lightly, my lad,” he replied lightly as a waiter appeared with wine. The man poured us both the requisite amount. The great man in front of me took a sip, making nary a sound as he did so. He tilted his head forward in the style I’d come to associate with professional wine-tasters, his brow furrowed with concentration. And then his forehead cleared as he straightened, sighing with contentment. The waiter bowed before asking, “The usual, Monsieur?”
“Yes,” he replied before looking at me. “And you, Pierre? What will you have?”
“The same as you, sir,” I replied, still feeling out of my depth. Something of that must have showed, as the great man burst out laughing.
“As you say, Pierre, as you say,” he replied, his mirth barely contained. The waiter bowed again before disappearing. “And now, that the business of maintaining appearances is done, you can tell me about the problem you face.”
I rubbed my palms together, my nervousness evident to one and all. It was one thing to actually think of something of this sort of meeting, quite another to actually be in it. The man in front of me was a legend in the intelligence community. He’d spearheaded the counter-intelligence efforts of Directorate for Defence Protection and Security (DPSD), France during the late 40’s. The man was a literal gold mine of information on the Soviet Union and their modus operandi.
On a more personal level, he was a close family friend and the reason I decided to join the intelligence community of France. His job was a high profile one, and the bodyguards who always accompanied him everywhere had made quite an impression on my young mind. He seemed to me the very embodiment of power. A rich man coming from a long and noble line of aristocrats doing all he could for his country. My father had the good fortune of being his flying partner in the Second World War, and their friendship had been cemented when he had rescued my father from a near-fatal accident after a crash in hostile territory. Fortunately, they managed to make it back to liberated France without being captured, incredible as that may seem. He moved on from flying to intelligence gathering, a place where his considerable talents found much use. The crash had, however, left my father partially paralysed, and so he decided to help the family of his old comrade by financing my education. Till then I’d decided that my aim in life would be to be just as successful as the man who’d helped me reach where I was. I worked hard until I became a field operative of the DPSD.
And now I’d come to him for help. He was working on some project a few cuts above my pay grade, and anyway, I had no desire to know his schedule. I just needed advice.
“Go on,” he urged, his smiling face encouraging me on.
I took a deep breath. “I need to know,” I began, “how to infiltrate the Soviet space program.”
For a full one minute, the only noise which could be heard was the clink of glasses and the soft rustle of cloth as waiters moved between tables, carrying food and drink. He stared at me like I was a loose nut and I stared vacantly back, forcing myself not to flee. It was highly irregular for two officials working on different projects to share information. The policy of ‘need-to-know’ was favoured in the DPSD.
The silence was broken, in the end, by the waiter moving to serve us. Cognac Shrimp with Beurre Blanc Sauce. I ate slowly, watching the man organise his thoughts. He chewed slowly, no doubt engrossed in the enigma of how to actually get someone into such a secretive organization.
“It would take a lot of patience and a lot of cunning,” he said finally, catching me off guard. Startled, my hand hit the table causing the salt shaker to fall off. He bent down to pick it up, putting it back on the table.
“It would take,” he continued, “a man of extraordinary talents. He would have to be completely unattached to anyone in this country and he must not have a native French accent.”
“And?” I ventured. “Will that be enough?”
“Of course not!” he exclaimed, a spark of insanity in his eyes. It was subdued, it was tamed, but when his harness and self-control failed, that spark would show in his eyes. All genii had them, or so I believed. It was what turned them into the best of the best, their ability to reason beyond the norm, their way of making insane plans which no one but they themselves could comprehend, and then the flawless execution.
“You would have to be able to forge documents which would fool the best Russian experts. You would have to create a way for him to send information to you which is untraceable. The man you have must have knowledge of rockets and space, he must be an engineer. Otherwise there will be no use of sending him here.”
He leaned forward conspiratorially. “And I have just the means to get him in.”
I leaned back, my surprise evident on my features. “You do?”
He nodded, his face aglow with excitement. “Totally,” he proclaimed enthusiastically. “All you require is to get your man to the border where my agent will contact him.”
“Surely it isn’t that easy?”
“Isn’t it?” he retorted. “The difficult part is finding the man you require. Everything else is fine. I have the informants, decoys and moles in place. I will have to get some people into the right positions, whisper a few words in the correct ears and set the mood for receiving that man. But the time that will take is around the same as it would take to get your guy from here to the Iron Curtain.”
“Are you hundred percent positive about this?”
“Of course!” he boomed, and the entire restaurant stared for a minute. Normal conversation resumed within seconds, attention vanishing as soon as it was turned upon us. I tried sinking into the ground. He began pulling at his collar. “Why is it so hot in here, I ask you?”
I leaned forward, concerned. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes, it’s OK, nothing to worry about, it’s just my -” He suddenly gave a great shuddering gasp and went still, his neck a weird blueish colour.
“Ambulance!” I shouted, my heart thudding with panic. “Ambulance!” Within seconds I had a waiter by my side as another ran to phone the ambulance. Beyond the table was the street, the muted screeching of tires and the honk of cars as loud to me as if it were playing right by my ear.
An ambulance arrived within minutes. I carried the great man along with two waiters, holding onto his wrist, feeling his increasingly weakening pulse with an acute sense of despair. We loaded him onto the ambulance as I climbed on after him, the sirens blaring.
As the ambulance began picking up speed, I stared at the doctors and nurses trying to help him, each doing their damned best.
‘Useless,’ I thought grimly, as I reached into my pocket, withdrawing a small, empty vial. There was no known cure. The victim would slip into coma and remain in that state for the next twelve hours, his symptoms consistent with a major heart attack. After twelve hours, his heart would inevitably fail.
A double agent must be killed, for one can serve only one master. Allegiance divided among two is allegiance lost. And I’d gained some valuable intel on his contacts in the USSR. Two birds, one shot.
That spark of insanity flickered in my eyes as the ambulance’s sirens wailed into the night.