Alan Keef

CLAIRE HAMILTON — CREATIVE WRITINGThe pen is mightier than the sword

On Her Majesty’s Service
by Alan M. Keef

‘Don’t do that,’ I shouted.
     Too late.
     The breakfast tray fell five floors from the balcony.       
     We stood, all of us, in awed silence and stared at Michael, who with total insouciance took a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, a lighter from another, flipped the lid, took one between his lips and lit it. He exhaled a cloud of blue smoke that drifted on the early morning air. I don’t think any of us heard the tray land. There were no screams and thus subconsciously we presumed that no one was hurt.
     It was Matt who broke the tension.
     ‘OK, Buster, so you’ve got our attention. Just what exactly is your point?’
     Michael continued to smoke but said not a word.
     It was Stephie’s turn. She casually walked up beside him and looked over the balcony.
     ‘There’s a lot of broken china down there. Something to do with you?’
     Maybe the feminine touch was going to work. He smiled but continued to smoke.
     ‘You could have hurt somebody, you know?’ she said.
     ‘Fat chance, they never wake up this early.’
     He had spoken.
     ‘That’s true enough,’ I said.
     Matt was about to say something but I held up a restraining hand. Matt was inclined to rush in; finesse was not his strongest suit. As I suspected, Michael had made his point and was now ready to give us the benefit of his wisdom.
     ‘Thank you,’ he said, performing a mock bow in my direction. ‘It’s all of you who are missing the point. You are all raring to go and want to rush off some place and see if you can find him whom we seek but you, none of you know where to start.’
     ‘And you think you do,’ spat out Stephie before Matt could get his oar in. I held up my hand again and they both subsided into chairs.
     ‘Yes,’ was all he said taking a final drag at his cigarette and flicking the still lit stub over the balcony. No screams.
     ‘And?’ I said.
     ‘He’ll come here.’
     ‘Rubbish,’ said Stephie.
     ‘Balls,’ said Matt.
     I considered. ‘You could have a point,’ I said.
     ‘How’s he know where we are?’ asked Stephie, perhaps beginning to adjust her opinion.
     ‘Ever thought that he might be a she?’ said Michael and with a ghost of a smile playing round his face whilst totally ignoring her question.
     ‘Balls,’ said Matt again.
     ‘I had actually,’ I said, ‘But I’ve discounted it.’
     ‘Don’t,’ he replied.
     It was my turn to be taken aback.
     ‘I can’t give you chapter and verse but I just think you shouldn’t write it off.’
     ‘Well, I’ll take your word for it but I’m not convinced.’
     ‘OK. Have it your own way.’
     ‘I will, but going back to Stephie’s point I think we can be sure that he knows we’re here, he knows why we’re here and he knows where we are. If he doesn’t then he’s not the man we think he is. More seriously if he doesn’t know all those things he’s no use to us anyway.’
     ‘Q.E.D.’ said Michael, ‘So you see why I’m not moving from here.’
     Matt was about to jump in with a whole host of snide and coarse remarks and I could see Stephie getting twitchy. It was time for me to issue orders.
     ‘Yesterday we had a plan. Slightly modified we still carry it out. I have a hunch that Michael might be right.’
     Stephie and Matt groaned in unison. Michael smiled his enigmatic smile, took out another cigarette and lit it.
     ‘So I’m staying here. Either Michael or I must be here, and I mean here, in this room or, at the very least, in this hotel all the time. That leaves the other to interrogate the city at large. To sit in the foyers of the other good hotels for an hour or two at a time. To be seen in any of the posh clubs that we can blag our way into. It’s going to be tedious at best and boring at worst but I suspect that your respective missions will be much the same.’
     ‘And we’re doing what while you’re living it up in the fleshpots of this dump?’ asked Matt in belligerent voice.
     ‘Yeah,’ echoed Stephie although she managed to put a feline snarl into it.
     I had to be unfazed.
     ‘At the very least you’ll see something of the country. As we all know only too well one capital city is much the same as another, especially when viewed from an almost identical hotel room. You might even gain a little culture’
     It was Matt who burst in. I thought he wouldn’t resist the last remark.
     ‘Culture. My arse. Is that why we’re here to look at the cultural heritage of this place?’ He started preening himself and mincing his words. ‘To look at this country, go home and write a travel programme about it? How nice it is? How nice the people are? How pleasant the bloody climate? You bugger off. Just decide what we’re supposed to be doing and we’ll do it.’
     Even Stephie seemed a bit surprised by his outburst but at least she didn’t add any whining comments of her own. I smiled. At least I had them on their metal.
     ‘You asked so here goes. You each stick with Plan A for starters. We are looking for one man in the ten million or so who live here but the odds are better than that. Half of them are women, at least ten per cent are children and another twenty percent are past it, at least as far as we are concerned. Of the remaining males at least ninety five per cent are not in our man’s league so that leaves one in around 18,000 which is still a pretty good needle in a haystack.’
     ‘Bloody impossible,’ muttered Matt.
     ‘Almost,’ I said, ‘But I am relying on him, or one of his, finding us. As agreed Stephie goes south and Matt goes north. You sweep round in a large circle and if you can meet as and where agreed in about four night’s time before coming back here that might be good. You stay in good hotels and, if they exist, you stop in similar ones for lunch each day. You do not travel anonymously, you make your presence felt as subtly as you can.
     ‘We’ve discussed all that,’ whinged Stephie.
     ‘I know, I know, but Stephie I know you prefer to play the tart and dress accordingly but if you hadn’t got some serious brains under those blond curls you know damn well you wouldn’t be within five thousand miles of this place. So use them and act accordingly. Also remember that this is a half Muslim country so no bikinis, short shorts, too deep a neckline, et al.’
     She pouted and did a tart’s pose at me but she had got the message. Matt grinned at her in a manner that told her she had her comeuppance. I rounded on him.
     ‘And don’t think you’re whiter than white. I know you’re the heavy about here should it be needed, God forbid, but just take this on board. No picking fights for the hell of it, you land yourself with the police somewhere, then you’re on your own. I shan’t know anything about you.’
     ‘As if I would,’ purred Matt.
     ‘You would.’
     ‘Final question,’ asked Stephie. ‘Is our man black, white or khaki?’
     ‘God, and to think I asked for you lot. Too many comments like that and it’ll be you that fiishes in jail. Michael, any thoughts?’
     Michael started and visibly re-appeared out of his reverie and his cigarette smoke.
     ‘I’d opt for white, but he could be Indian.’
     ‘Khaki then,’ said Stephie and stuck her tongue out at me. I rolled my eyes to heaven but the monosyllabic Michael spoke again.
     ‘But it probably won’t be the man himself that you see in the first instance.’
     Matt grunted which was his way of signifying that he had accepted that piece of information.
     ‘Now off with both of you. You’ve each got the thick end of a thousand miles to cover in the next few days and I can hear this place beginning to wake up.’
     Reluctantly they shifted themselves, gathered their bags and within quarter of an hour were gone, one discreetly and the other with a roaring of engines. No prizes for guessing which was which! Matt left behind, for the benefit of Michael and myself, a curse on all those who just might have been to a public school or had a private education. It meant he was happy in his work.
     ‘Michael, am I being silly staying here?’ I queried.
     It was his turn to roll his eyes. He answered with care, treating me as a small child.
     ‘The others may get wind of him, their movements will surely be tracked, but my money is on his being in the city here. He’s less likely to be noticed in a place like this.’
     ‘Probably right under our noses, if we knew where to look.’
     ‘Very possibly.’
     The next couple of days were indeed as boring as I had predicted if not more so. I had coffee or tea in all the other half decent hotels in town. I collected a large parcel from the embassy. I dutifully wasted half an hour of the ambassador’s time in the process but as both of us knew why I was here and were protocol bound not to discuss it the conversation was a bit stilted. I attended the Cricket Club, which was the watering hole of choice for the ex-pat community and by chance met someone who knew I would not be in town unless something covert was going on. He had the good sense not to want to chat about it and gave me an introduction to both the Sailing Club and the Jockey Club.
     ‘I don’t know why I bother,’ he grumbled, ‘you know bugger all about either sailing or the geegees.’
     ‘Don’t you believe it,’ I said, ‘I know a lot about sailing and certainly more about horses than I do about cricket.’
     He harrumphed but came up trumps for me.
     What Michael did I was never very sure. He was in fact perfectly happy sitting in the hotel with his nose in a book but just occasionally he needed some exercise and had to face the world. On past form, I suspect he wandered about the less salubrious parts of town into which he seemed to manage to fit remarkably well. Perhaps it was his smoking that gave him a bond with the labourers and down and outs of this world. Perhaps he had risen from that stratum of society and it was just a case of slipping back into it. I don’t and most certainly never will know.
     It finally happened exactly as he had predicted. It took me by surprise just the same. I was sitting in the hotel room in the early afternoon of the third day wondering what in Hell’s name I was  going to do in the evening that was even remotely different and could at the same time be considered useful to the cause. There came a knock on the door and before I had time to invite whoever was there to enter, they had opened it and come in. My visitor was a great big black mamma of a woman who bulged out of a hotel uniform at every seam. I had not seen her before and that set my antennae waving. She also brought a trolley of afternoon tea that I had not ordered.
     In English better than that of most of my compatriots, she said, ‘I brought some tea for us to drink during our little tete a tete.’
     This was definitely it, but I played along.
     ‘I don’t remember ordering tea,’ I said.
     ‘You didn’t. This one’s on me. Or perhaps I should say us.’
     That confirmed it.
     ‘And how do I pay you for it?’ This was a password.
     ‘It will be paid for in kind.’ And that was the correct answer.
Michael had been quite right to suggest that he might be a she but I am certain that this mountain of a woman was not what even he had expected.
     ‘Shall I play mother and pour,’ she said, sorting out the cups, milk and teapot. This was ridiculous.
     ‘OK,’ I said.
     She handed me my cup with one hand and a bowl of sugar lumps complete with tongs in the other. It surprised me that my first reaction was to wonder how Matt would have coped in this gentlemanly situation. For all his faults I am quite sure that he would have, admirably.
     Once we were settled she took padded envelope that had been taped to the underside of the trolley. It was of about A5 size but thick with it. She handed it to me. I held back.
     ‘Not a bomb, I trust,’ I said.
     She laughed.
     ‘And just how would that help any of us? Shall I open it for you?’
     ‘I’ll take your word for it,’ I said.
     Nevertheless it was with some trepidation that I pulled it apart. There was no explosion – not that I would have known if there had been.
     I looked inside and then pulled out the papers and the further hoped-for small packet. I didn’t want to make a big issue of checking all the contents, so as everything seemed to be in order I assumed it was. Dangerous, for me that is, but I could see little alternative in this very genteel situation. HMG would be pleased. It was a pity Michael was not here to witness the denouement of his thinking and both Stephie and Matt would be upset for not participating either, but I was more than certain we would not have reached this most satisfactory point if any of them had been anywhere near.
     I got up and took a large gift-wrapped parcel from the wardrobe of my room and handed it to the woman. Although it had arrived out here in the diplomatic bag I had puzzled over this parcel. I knew it had been bought at a leading London store, specifically not Harrods, and I had strict instructions not to damage it. I had a shrewd guess at what it contained but found my conclusions unlikely, not to say unsettling. Was that all there was in it?
     ‘Out of pure interest I suppose its no good asking your name?’ I said as I passed it to her.
     ‘No good at all,’ she said, immediately starting to unwrap her present.
     ‘I thought not,’ I said sitting back into my chair. ‘How about ‘How did you know where to find me?’.’
     ‘That one’s easy and I can answer. We know just where you are. Two of you rushing round the country like, how do you put it, blue arsed flies. One of you down in the docks, the railway yards or someplace similar. You sitting here, wondering where to go next! So I just thought I’d call by and we’d have tea together. Wish they had some larger uniforms though!’
She wriggled uncomfortably.
     ‘More or less as we expected, you find us not the other way round.’
     She flicked the back of her hand at me firmly indicating an end to inquisitive conversation. Then she looked up over the top of the wrapping paper and beamed, or at least as far as a mouth full of chocolate would allow. She also waved an envelope that looked as though it might contain a significant wad of dollar bills. There had to be more than just chocolates.
     ‘Thank you,’ she said, gathering up the tea things and heading for the door with her trolley.
     I relaxed. Matters had gone better than I could possibly have hoped. There had been no need for Stephie to create a honeytrap, no need for strong-arm tactics from Matt and Michael’s formidable brainpower had put me in the right place at the right moment
I reached for the envelope she had left me. I looked more carefully at the papers inside. First my eyebrows went up and then I whistled out loud. The packet I weighed up and down in my hand. Although I had the skills to open and reseal it so that only a particularly astute observer would notice, I did not have that much time. There was no telling when Michael might return and instructions, nay, orders, were that the contents of this package, if indeed we obtained it, were not for my eyes. Or anyone else’s for that matter.
     It took me but an instant to realise the further possibilities. I lay back in my chair and gazed into space. I had to be sure of what my instinct was telling me. I held up my left hand with the fingers vertical. My right hand pulled them down one by one.
     Index Finger. Our masters were primarily only interested in the packet. With that our mission would be considered successful.
     Middle Finger. Neither they nor any of the team knew about the papers. Michael still remained wherever Michael was.
     Fourth Finger. There were people out there who would pay a very substantial sum for the information contained in said papers and, at the moment, I was the only person who knew of their existence.
     Little Finger. One innocuous phone call could bring that money my way.
     I spread them out and looked through them again. I was not wrong, definitely not wrong. With careful investment I could retire five years sooner than planned. I reached for the hotel telephone.
     At the third attempt, pressing the 9 button gave me the purr of an outside line.
     At that very moment Michael slipped back through the door and his eyes homed in on the papers on my lap.
     Very carefully I put the receiver back on its cradle.          

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