When a keen-eyed Marcus Allum first spotted the weather-beaten face and broad shoulders of Gerald Hammond he was almost eighty yards away, casually strolling along on the far side of Washington’s Connecticut Avenue. Allum hurriedly turned away and then ducked into a convenient coffee shop, where he threaded his way through the busy seating area, selected a table at the back, and then hid behind his newspaper.
Not that Marcus Allum imagined for a second that Hammond hadn’t seen him. When you have been trained to scan a sea of faces for a single nervous look, you don’t miss something as obvious as an old friend avoiding an embarrassing reunion; you don’t miss anything. And when your life has so often depended on you seeing them before they see you, you make damn sure you see them first.
However, as Gerald Hammond wandered past the frontage, his attention didn’t shift from the sidewalk and his face betrayed little of his thoughts. He seemed preoccupied and distant, almost to the point of morose. He obviously hadn’t noticed Allum duck into the coffee shop, or seen him watching from behind his newspaper. Given Hammond’s well-publicized problems, Marcus Allum could fully understand why.
Allum ordered a black coffee and sat moodily remembering, as the doubts began to nag at what little conscience he possessed. Two years ago Hammond wouldn’t have missed him. Two years ago Gerald Hammond was the best in the business. Two years ago he would have seen Allum at least fifty yards before Allum saw him.
Maybe returning from the war in Europe to find OSS disbanded and his wife sleeping with strangers had jointly conspired to blunt all those finely-honed skills that had once set Gerald Hammond apart from other agents. Maybe all those rejected applications to join the State Department had dented the ego and sedated all those extra senses. Maybe loved ones and circumstance at home had succeeded where a deadly enemy and war overseas had failed.
Had he suffered anything more than a minor twinge of conscience, Allum might have resolved to look up his old Princeton friend and former OSS colleague, but Marcus Allum wasn’t the type to allow distraction. These days the State Department’s Head of Occupied Territories had more important problems to wrestle than the disastrous marriage and sudden career nose-dive of Gerald Hammond.
Nonetheless, it disturbed him.
Allum vigorously stirred his coffee and stared into the resulting vortex as the memories swirled and his mood deepened. He was thinking back to Princeton and those early days, when they had both been young enough to believe in naïve pledges of loyalty and honour and friendship.
But that had been long before London, and even longer before Rouen.
Gerald Hammond always said that Marcus Allum was never the same after they made him London Station Chief. Marcus Allum always said that Gerald Hammond was never the same after Rouen. Both accusations held more than a grain of truth.
In Allum’s case the reason was simple. His all-consuming ambition, political chicanery and lack of any moral code merely confirmed Hammond’s assertion that the quest for power can sometimes corrupt as absolutely as the power itself. With Gerald Hammond the reasons were more worthy and more complex, but neither man was ever the same.
“Excuse me, sir. . . Mr Allum.”
The interruption jolted Marcus Allum from his thoughts. He let go of the memories, and looked up from his coffee. An immaculately-suited underling stood before him, impatiently shifting his weight from one highly-polished brogue to the other.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, sir.”
“What is it?”
“It’s the girl, sir. They’ve found her.”
“In Magdeburg, sir.”
Uncharacteristically, Marcus Allum allowed his surprise to show.
“Magdeburg? Are they sure? Not Berlin?”
“No, sir. They say she’s definitely in Magdeburg.” The young man furtively scanned the surrounding area and then lowered his voice to little more than a whisper. “The Sovs are already out looking for her, sir. They say it’s just a matter of time.”
The thunder on Allum’s face deepened.
“Shit! All right, tell Alan Carlisle I want to see him as soon as I get back.”
The young man turned to make his way out of the shop. Allum stopped him.
“Just a minute. . . How did you know where to find me?”
“Uh, I ran into Mr Hammond, down the street, sir. He told me.”
The young man stood nervously watching, uncertain as to whether a conversation with Gerald Hammond might be construed as fraternization. He needn’t have worried. The look of thunder on Allum’s face fell away and previously scowling features suddenly broke into a grin.
“Did he now? I bet he even told you which table I was at?”
“Yes, sir, he did.”
“All right. Tell Carlisle I’ll be back directly.”
A casual ten-minute stroll away, Gerald Hammond had returned to his office and was thinking similar thoughts to those that had troubled Marcus Allum, but Hammond’s thoughts were blacker than any of those that Marcus Allum might have conjured from his coffee. Hammond was thinking of London and OSS, but mostly he was thinking of Rouen.
The assault on Rouen had happened two years earlier, a little over six weeks before D-Day, when a reckless bureaucrat with the token rank of Major had flown a solo reconnaissance mission over Occupied France. A lone Messerschmitt intercepted the Lysander, and his resulting capture threw Allied plans for invasion into chaos.
The Normandy Resistance discovered his location. They radioed London with the news. The Gestapo were holding him in Rouen, not in the infamous tower, but in the headquarters opposite. A highly-skilled team, with a lot of luck, just might get him out.
A frantic Allied command immediately dumped the problem into Allum’s lap. He just as quickly dumped it into Hammond’s. The orders were clear: Make sure you get to him before they realize who they’ve got and transfer him to Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Oh, and bring him back safely if possible. The obvious question had received a chilling answer.
“It is essential to the successful outcome of the war that he does not reach Avenue Foch or the rue des Saussaies alive. How you achieve that is your decision.”
Hammond’s team hit the Rouen Gestapo Headquarters at four-thirty the next morning, in those muddled few minutes between night and day, when darkness retreats into shadow and the eyes can so easily deceive.
They began the carnage, not with the crash of grenades and the rattle of small-arms fire, but with stealth and skeleton keys, suppressed Sten-guns firing subsonic rounds, and a silent bullet that shattered the skull of the only external guard.
From there, they moved noiselessly through the building, killing as they went, leaving no room unvisited in their search for a reckless bureaucrat, and no one alive to raise the alarm. Few of the victims woke in time to see their killers. None put up any kind of fight.
It took almost fifteen minutes of searching and killing before they found their objective, locked in a top-floor bedroom, guarded by a single SS trooper.
A minute after that they were out of the building and away.
Whenever Hammond thought of Rouen, and that was often, he would recall the disgust and shame he had felt at the need for so many cold-blooded killings, so many that the heat of the Sten’s suppressor had blistered his hand. He would then go on to recall each briefly-illuminated face of each slumbering victim, and finally bring to mind the look of terror on a reckless bureaucrat’s face as the torchlight searched him out.
That same bureaucrat went on to help plan the invasion of mainland Europe and the downfall of Adolf Hitler. The powers that be may have privately called him a reckless fool, but they publicly feted him as a hero and awarded him the Silver Star.
Those same powers that be had also recommended Hammond for a medal, someone even mentioned the Congressional Medal of Honour, but then someone else whispered something about ‘handing out gallantry medals for killing people in their beds’ and that idea was quickly shelved. Gerald Hammond hadn’t cared. The last thing he had wanted was a further and tangible reminder of that night.
And so Hammond’s reward was a curt nod of thanks and a hearty slap on the back for having killed so many and saved just one, before another Marcus Allum order saw him loaded on to a night flight and dropped back into Occupied France with Operation Jedburgh.
After attending the Rouen debriefing, Hammond never again spoke of the horror and carnage that he and his team had wreaked in the early hours of that innocuous spring morning. He never spoke of the accusing faces that visited him every night, and he never spoke of the shame and disgust that remained lodged so vividly in both conscious and subconscious minds.
Nowadays he spent his nights alone, in a cold sweat, and his days sitting behind a desk among the labyrinth of streets and avenues that sprawl in all directions from Washington’s Dupont Circle; the land of ambition and greed, where the fortunate few come to rule and the aroma of power and privilege hangs in the air like perfumed smog.
Sadly, for Hammond, there were no windows in his office to invite that wonderful aroma, just a softwood door and wafer-thin partition wall between him and the typing pool outside; no intoxicating whiff of power and privilege, just the stench of tedium and failure.
“God Almighty, save me.”
Suddenly there was only silence. The petty gossip, cackling laughter and constant tap, tap, tap of the typewriters had all stopped. For a splendid moment he sat quietly appreciating the silence, idly wishing it could always be like this, before suddenly realizing why it was.
He had spoken his blasphemy out loud and they had heard. He smiled a cynical smile. Perhaps God had heard, too.
Moments later, normal activity resumed, assuming that such an ugly racket could ever be described as normal. The gossip, the cackling, the tap, tap, tap; it had all returned to irritate him, and it had fetched the sadness with it.
It was now just after three o’clock in afternoon, and he was sitting with his head in his hands and his eyes closed. In the two hours since returning from lunch he had managed to collate just four items of correspondence from a stack of a hundred. He opened his eyes to view the unfinished work, piled up in his in-tray and felt even more miserable. He hated every aspect of this job.
A knock at the door interrupted the gloom.
“What is it?”
“It’s Alice, Mr Hammond. I’ve got someone here who wants to see you.”
A portly figure pushed her aside and a face Hammond remembered well smiled warmly.
“Gerald, it’s good to see you after all this time. How long has it been now?”
The man was short in stature and long in self-importance, with slicked and thinning hair receding from a well-padded face and small grey eyes. He wore a dark blue three-piece suit and a starched white shirt, with a gold pocket watch and chain that looped its way across a well-padded midriff. To complete the immaculate presentation he wore a blue and white diagonal-striped silk tie that said, ‘If you don’t know this is Yale, you don’t matter’. Should an ignorant world still fail to realize just how important this man was, he carried a monogrammed black calfskin briefcase and a rolled-up copy of the Wall Street Journal, presumably for swatting lesser beings.
Gerald Hammond knew how long it had been: twenty-three months and two weeks. Hammond remembered precisely, because he would never forget his previous encounter with Davis Alan Carpenter. Today the features looked bloated and supercilious, but two years ago they hadn’t looked like that. Two years ago, in the torchlight’s beam, they had been thin and drawn and contorted in terror.
“May I come in?” Davis Carpenter ambled through the doorway without waiting for an answer. Hammond clasped the outstretched hand and gestured to a chair. The portly bureaucrat sagged into it. He fished in his pocket for a handkerchief and then mopped at his brow. “God, it’s hot in here.” He replaced the handkerchief and began rummaging through his briefcase, talking as he searched.
“You know, Gerald, I never got the chance to thank you properly for that bit of business in Northern France. Perhaps I can do that now.”
“I’m sorry, what’s this all about?”
“They tell me you’re looking for work with the State Department.”
Hammond nodded furiously and rifled through his desk drawer for a résumé. He found a dog-eared copy and offered it to Carpenter, who grinned and waved it away.
“I already know what the résumé says, Gerald.”
Davis Carpenter produced a pack of cigars from his briefcase. He took one, lit it, and offered the case to Hammond, who shook his head.
“And what else do you know?” he asked.
“That you’re a small-arms and unarmed combat expert, but perhaps a little rusty. You like to drink scotch, but only in moderation. You’re employed here, as a grade-three manager, with the Washington office of The Mutual and Equitable Insurance Company of Beaumont Texas, but despise the job. You’re bored and in a rut, but don’t see a way out. You want into the State Department, but have run out of any contacts who might sponsor you. . . Did I miss anything?”
“Not much. Now tell me what you don’t know.”
Davis Carpenter took a moment before answering. He seemed almost embarrassed.
“I know you’ve got ability, Gerald, and I know you had a heart big enough to take on an army. I should know that better than most. However, and let me be candid here, all that cloak-and-dagger stuff is a young man’s game. You’re forty years old.”
Hammond tried to interrupt. Carpenter held up his hands in mock surrender.
“I know. I know. It’s not two years since you pulled me out of Rouen, and there’s none of us getting any younger, but I’m not gonna pull punches here, I’ve got too much respect for you to do that.”
There was clearly a more aggressive side to the portly and pretentious Davis Carpenter.
“I think you’re one of the good guys, Gerald, but let’s face facts. You’ve taken some knocks recently; some pretty serious knocks. You’ve no friends, or none that could do you any good. You’ve no immediate family to speak of, or none that could give a damn. Your wife screws her way all round Washington, and rubs your nose in it at the same time, and whatever’s left of a once-promising career is now well on its way down the toilet.”
Hammond watched Carpenter watching him, seeing the clumsy attempt to incite and understanding the reason for it. If Davis Carpenter wanted to spark a reaction, wanted to see if the heart was still there, Gerald Hammond was only too happy to oblige.
“If that’s true, then what’s a high-flyer like you doing, taking the time to visit a washed-up wreck like me? Deskbound bureaucrats like you don’t need the aggravation.”
Carpenter’s answer was equally candid.
“Because I saw you in Rouen, and you were magnificent. You were, you know. I honestly thought I was dead until you came along. We bet everything on you then and you didn’t let us down. Problem is, we don’t know if we should do it again. We don’t know how badly these domestic problems have affected you, or how much remains of that big heart of yours.”
Sensing the approach of yet another disappointment, Hammond pushed back.
“There’s more than enough heart in me, and you owe me.”
“That’s true. As a friend and a colleague I owe you more than I could ever repay. But as the man who has to decide whether an emotionally damaged, forty-year-old former OSS agent can still serve and protect the country we love from those who seek to destroy it. . .”
Carpenter shrugged and left the point unfinished. Hammond frowned.
“What is all this, anyway? I thought this was about a post with the State Department?”
“Oh, it is, and I’m pleased to tell you that, as soon as I put in the paperwork, you’ll report directly to me. However, there was something else we rather hoped you’d do for us in the interim. You do speak German, don’t you? That is one of yours? Oh yes, and Russian, of course?” Hammond frowned again, and then slowly nodded. Carpenter nodded back and once again began rummaging through his case. “Yes, that’s what they told me.” He explained as he searched. “You see, Gerald, we’ve something in mind for you that’s a little more up your street, as they say; a little more involved. Now where did I put that file? Ah yes, here it is.”