London 19th November 2015.
The Thames winds its way towards the cold North Sea. Like a mighty serpent at whose tail is the heart of England and at its heart the capital city. A city, once called the greatest city in the world. I can’t keep my eyes from the river, I can’t avert my gaze from the steel grey; it holds my attention magnetically. The late autumn mist has rolled in up the estuary and now shrouds the great city. The fog insulates me and incrementally it has crept across the labyrinthine streets and concealed them from me, as I am concealed from them. Beyond my vision the city looms and hums, sounds softened by the fog’s heavy shroud; removing me to a place away from the harsh reality of the neon and sharp focus of the city life. I turn away from the window and back into the bright artificial light of the office.
The desk is bare, except for one pile of papers in the centre. The polished and dark mahogany of the antique desk is stark contrast to the white A4 documents. The desk had been salvaged from a nineteenth century steamer called the Narcissus. It had been the desk of the master of that vessel. When I worked on the desk I felt a connection back through the ages to that man. When I lay my hand flat on the surface of the antique wood I felt the pulse of history through the polish, through the varnish and emanating from the wood; a whisper of a memory of distant Eastern shores, times long gone and names long forgotten.
I knew that within the leaves of the dossier sitting silently on the desk was concealed a truly shameful episode that my department had presided over. The voices of this episode must be silenced and lost, concealed and denied. The dossier discussed the depths and darkness that we had plumbed. I understood that my mark was upon the story and I must take some responsibility for my part, for what it is worth. My part was a small part, just a small cog in a huge machine, but nonetheless I had a part to play as this machine mercilessly consumed and destroyed.
Glancing back towards the window I felt the fog had now fully descended. The great river has disappeared and the great city has followed suit. The shroud of insulating and concealing fog was now complete. Its greyness infected the room and despite the modernity of the fluorescent light the office became dull and oppressive. The same tidal fog had been rolling over the Thames estuary, the Essex marshes and London since time began. It had enveloped this place before the city was born. The construction of the city was incidental to the remorseless rhythms and inexorable pulse of the natural world. I was alone in the hidden desolation of the fog; alone with the file and its contents of damnation.
I was expecting the others to come. The meeting was scheduled for all of the morning. So I started the coffee percolator and checked the cream and biscuits. The first drops of coffee started to fill the percolator jug and the rich aroma of the coffee filled me with a reassurance of civility and with the preparations, a reassurance of my domesticity. After all it is only right, when dropping into the dark depths of our own depravity that we should be comfortable and be able to enjoy a decent cup of coffee. We would sit around my desk; discuss the dossier and decide who shall live and who shall die. This was the first time in my years of service I had felt this empty hollowness. I felt alone and ashamed. There could be no reconciliation for what I was about to do. There could be no redemption from the decisions I knew I would be making. I would not be making the decisions alone but with my accomplices. But where would the accomplices be in the long watches of my sleepless nights as I lay alone surrounded by the blasted landscape of my conscience?
The heavy wooden door swung open and my two accomplices entered my office. Both of whom were exercises in non-description. Regulation suits, regulation hair styles, even regulation Parker pens, all designed to be inconspicuous and blend with the millions of office workers in the shrouded city below us. Mr White and Mr Black came in smoothly and quietly. There was nothing accidental about the economy in Mr White’s movements. He moved with a measure of economy so no waste of energy occurred. The languid fluidity of the older man spoke of his physical confidence and prowess. I placed three coffee cups on the table. Even the coffee was prescribed. White, with no sugar. This, statistically speaking, was the way that most white collar workers in London had their coffee, so it was the way we took ours.
“Good morning, Mr Green”, Mr White spoke first.
“Good morning”, I replied. A small voice in my head said “My name is not Mr fucking Green, my name is Lowe, Mark Lowe”. The contents of the dossier on the table had been the final straw. The last step on my march to oblivion. There could be no more selling of my soul, I knew this was the final insult to my morality, the blurring of my compass was almost complete. Once I lost this direction I would be the same as White; I would join the desolate waste ground in which he reigned. Once this job was completed I was out.
“Morning, the coffee smells good”, Mr Black sat at the desk and ritualistically stirred his coffee. His movements were also deliberate and rehearsed; prescribed, controlled and contrived. He lifted the spoon out the rich dark coffee and gently placed it on the china saucer.
“Yeah, it is a nice coffee”, I took a sip of mine. I wanted a sugar. The strong, creamy coffee was bitter but rich in its depth.
The three of us skirted around the dossier. We all had our part to play in this. The pile of papers sat brooding on the antique mahogany. Just a pile of A4 plain white printer paper. A collection of letters, documents, emails and notes. Some personal, some institutional, when taken all together they were deeply incendiary. This pile of papers, memories, truths and lies was the closest thing that I could establish as a reasonable account of the circumstances around the deaths of two British agents in a lost struggle in the dark heart of Central America. Touching the papers made me feel physically sick. I knew the men, I knew what we had done and I was repulsed. There can be no concept of greater good when held against the death of two men in a jungle three thousand miles away. Their bodies must still lie where they fell. I had the image of the grass growing through their rib cages set in my mind’s eye.
We had been their authors. I looked at the other two. They surely felt something about the two men we sent to the jungle. The voice in my head became more urgent in its demands for my separation from this insanity. “My name is Lowe, Mark Lowe, I want sugar in my coffee. I don’t want this madness”.
“I would like to have a personnel meeting with you when this affair is concluded Mr White”. I avoided eye contact with him. He had been my supervisor for three years. This was the first time I had asked him for a meeting.
“No problem, I will email you a time and venue”. He replied without raising an eyebrow or looking at me.
“There is no way out of this, they won’t let me go, I know too much”, the cautionary voice spoke quietly but with a certain authority it was difficult to ignore. I found my way into this organisation fairly easily. Things seemed to just flow along a course of least resistance. From Special Branch to a Home Office secondment, then quietly approached to join the team. My exit may not be quite so simple. The team’s idea of a gagging clause was a quiet drive out to the pig farm, a single bullet through the atlas joint and then a cremation in the farm incinerator. Not how I wanted to go. The team certainly looked after its own. I was as owned as Winchester and Hicks were owned. The moment that I stepped into the wilderness and desolation of the team in the blind arrogance of a pilgrim they assumed the ownership of me and I lost all hope of ever remaining Mark Lowe. I wanted to take sugar in my coffee.
“Is it all in the file?” asked Black.
“Yes, everything is in there”. I answered “all of our sins”.
“How many copies are there?” asked White.
“Only this one.” I lied, “That’s what our policy says”. “The other copies are electronic, if you harm me then they go live”. No, that surprise can ensure me a few days when it is time to leave. If I told him now they would ‘extract’ the information from me.
White had never asked me a question like this before. Team policy dictated that no copies were made. He never doubted my ability to follow team direction before. So this question, showed a doubt in the assumption of my professionalism, and so a doubt on my security integrity.
“There are some gaps in our knowledge, both men operated beyond normal monitoring systems. In my opinion it would be difficult to imagine our part in this affair standing up to any scrutiny. It certainly can never enter the public domain”. I spoke to White. My mention of the public domain was a threat. White knew this. So it would begin.
“Yes, for sure, but we can piece together the majority of their movements, can’t we?” asked Black.
“Yeah, our team have been into the jungle and recovered as much kit as they could. One of the things recovered was a Smart phone belonging to Winchester. I looks like he had been keeping an online blog. Maybe he thought this would support his writing in the future, I don’t know.” I replied.
“What about Hicks?” asked White.
“We have other records for him, I am afraid.” I added.
“There is the account of another agent that we must fall back on for that.” I knew that the other two did not know about this further piece of information. This provided me with another layer of protection. At least until they had read the dossier.
White looked straight at me. “Willard was killed months ago”.
“No, Willard disappeared months ago, he was not killed. He lost his way in the darkness of the jungle”, I added. I tried to maintain the mystery of the further pieces of information.
“Who is Willard?” asked Black.
White turned to him and answered, “He was a Captain in the Royal Marines, seconded to us. He was sent in to deal with Hicks before Winchester. It was thought that he had been killed or succumbed to some jungle borne illness before he found Hicks. His reports dried up months ago.”
“He is alive”, I chipped in. “He did not die, he found Hicks and joined him”.
“Where is he now?” White asked, he was looking to tie up the loose ends. When this meeting was over he would make a call, send an email and Willard would disappear. The Willard I met might be glad of the single bullet or the lethal injection to escape from the torture of his existence.
“Not sure”, I lied again, “His account is in the dossier, it is unclear where he went following the incident in Tanjoc.” He was in sheltered accommodation in Plymouth.
“Right, let’s have another coffee and have a look at this mess”, said White.
I stood up from my desk and collected the cups. When I returned with the coffee from the occasional table White was placing his regulation i-phone in his pocket.