Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.
– Soren Kierkegaard
It began, appropriately
enough, with an Alpha protocol. The War to End All Wars had been put
to rest some two years previously
, for the second and, hopefully
, last time. Now it was all about winning the peace, and that seemed to be a much tougher prospect. People had been liberated
from camps and brought home.
Soldiers, sailors and airmen were demobbed, thanked for their service and kicked back into ‘real life’, left to deal with the physical and mental scars as best they could. In turn, they displaced the women who had held everything together – except when these women pushed back, having gained confidence in their war time roles.
And then of course there were the spooks…the spooks did what spooks always do: melt back into the shadows.
Jack was bored, heartily so. He’d been cooped up in his garret for quite long enough. Shortly after the war ended, the Department had insisted his little team weren’t needed anymore. He couldn’t believe how short-sighted they were being; just because the war was over, it didn’t mean there weren’t committed zealots still out there. He’d argued till he’d all but lost his voice, to no avail. So he’d taken off on his travels. Not long returned, he was now even more convinced, but was all too aware he was going to have to flush some of them out to prove he was right. On his last visit to Oxford, Tink had introduced him to a new crowd of academics, one of them being a Persian chappie. He’d sparked an idea, one that should persuade any lurking members of the Ahnenerbe to set off on a wild goose chase to the Middle East. He’d got nearly all the pieces tied up, but he desperately needed some fresh air.
Summer was over and they were rapidly heading into the cooler days of Autumn. Jack was beginning to feel the familiar ache returning to his bones – the long months till Spring arrived weren’t his best, but needs must. Not that he was going to find much fresh air in London, but there was no time for a trip home to Theydon Bois, so a bit of a tramp through Victoria Park would have to do. Even when busy, there was usually room enough for him to get lost amongst the trees.
Now that he was going to escape it, Jack had to admit the garret made a rather nice London pied-a-terre. He’d been able to snap it up brand new in ’39 even before the war started. It fronted onto Mare Street, a long and largely straight thoroughfare well served by buses. Richmond Court itself was all curves and Crittall windows. Stylistically, it was too modern for his taste, but those windows let in a lot of light. And it was very roomy, making it perfect when they needed to get together for one of those long planning sessions… There was space enough for a crowd and a decent-sized table, so they could spread out maps and the like. He could see Tink, in his minds-eye, sprawled out in the big armchair, cogitating deeply, smoking his filthy tobacco in a venerable and heavily stained pipe. On the third floor above the shops – hence the garret moniker – it afforded a good view of the comings and goings on the street, which was both useful and allowed Jack to feel more secure. There was less danger of getting hemmed in unexpectedly.
The area had been hit hard in the blitz and the locals seemed inordinately pleased the old Picture House was still standing. Jack wasn’t into the flicks, but he could understand the desire to hold onto good memories of the past, after all they’d been through.
Grabbing his coat and hat, he took the stairs two at a time, and nipped across the road, and…to all intents and purposes, it looked like he’d changed his mind, and decided to get a paper. Out of the corner of his eye, he had spotted it, and under the pretext of getting an early evening edition of the paper, he took a closer look. It wasn’t the usual mark of the ‘I’ve got a little titbit you might find useful’ type – no, this was unmistakably the Greek letter alpha. Jack felt a rush of excitement, before worrying how long the sign had been there. He’d not been outdoors for a few days but … no, he reassured himself, Billy would’ve upped the ante for an Alpha protocol. Still, no time for walks in the park now, he’d better get over there right away.
Settling himself down in the boozer near Bow Cemetery, Jack waited. He’d no idea how the message got to him, but Billy always turned up within an hour of his arrival. Billy walked in, ordered a half, sipped it – not quick, not slow – while chatting to the bar maid. Jack noted the posy of flowers in Billy’s hand: the privacy of the cemetery was needed for this conversation, so he finished his drink, folded his newspaper and walked out. Billy followed, ten minutes later and they did what, for some unknown reason, Billy called the Lambeth walk, that little dance that led to a clandestine meet, where both parties make sure the other isn’t being tailed. Later, standing in front of a headstone, now adorned with the posy, Jack heard the story.
“It’s Frank. ‘e got fished out of the Thames up by the Dogs. My mate at the morgue says the coppers think ‘e fell ‘cos ‘e wus drunk, ‘n then bashed in ‘is ‘ead. The bloke whut pulled ‘im out told ’em ‘e stunk of booze, but we both know ‘e never touched the stuff. And thas not all, his key wus missing – werl, everthing wus gone reely, clean as a whistle ‘is pockets were. Worse, ‘is fingerprints ‘ave gone, bin burned orf my mate says. ‘e called me on the off chance I might know of someone of that description missing, not that I told so ‘im mind.” “Have you checked out his digs?” “Yeah, Viv took ‘er cleanin’ crew in there ‘n I slipped in with ’em. It’d been turned over right proper. Anythin’ new ‘he was workin’ on has gawn.” “Blast! I’d better get busy and put a file together from what we do have then.”
Jack sighed, more nights in the garret, more nights in the file room poring over papers, trying to find a pattern. More in hope than expectation, Jack asked Billy whether he’d heard any whispers.
“Only thin’ out of the ordinary, ‘e’s been seen round ‘n about with a bloke ‘oo’s not a local. Country gent type, not unlike yerself.” “How so?” “Not as tall, but stockier. Ruddy face, some sez from boozin’, some from country air. Sorta fair hair, not brown not yellow, and very pale eyes – blue most likely. Good sturdy shoes, but polished and looked after. Clothes a bit more comfortable than sharp, if you get my drift, but everything well made, expensive too I’ll be bound. And big hands – like great plates o’ meat.” “Thanks Billy. Frank mentioned in one of his notes he’d come across a few new bods. I’ll take a look at the names and see if anyone ties up with your description.”
Anyone observing Jack and Billy wouldn’t have seen anything out of the ordinary. Despite Jack’s landed gentry status, he never looked out of place in the East End. Billy had rightly pinned him as a country gent, but of the decidedly down-at-heel sort. His clothes might’ve been good once, but now were well-worn and, frankly, threadbare in places. His jumper showed signs of being regularly darned, and with functionality rather than skill. Sturdy was also a good description for his shoes, but they were scruffy and usually had bits of dried mud somewhere about them. His age was hard to fix – sometimes he looked young and vibrant, at others care-worn and tired – most people ended up guessing somewhere in his 40s. Despite being fairly tall and slim, he had the ability to blend in. Not as well as Billy, but then Billy had a special talent. The only time you’d know Jack for sure was if you saw him striding across open ground, his legs appeared never ending and seemed to eat up the ground. You rarely saw Jack run, but he travelled fast.
Billy, well, some people called him a chameleon, but in truth, there was nothing remarkable about Billy, until you saw him close to that is. But there was something else … even if it was hard to put your finger on what, exactly. And so they passed unnoticed, which is just how they liked it. Needed it too, you could say.