Welcome to the first of our regular series showcasing the first chapters from our books. Today, we have "Agent Lavender: The Flight of Harold Wilson", by Jack Tindale and Tom Black
Wednesday 29th October 1975 – 1:00am
‘Termination’ was not particularly subtle, as British euphemisms went. As Agent Temple entered the service stairwell of the Hotel Stadt Berlin, he mused that the country responsible for ‘closed for the duration’ and ‘powdering one’s nose’ could have drummed up a less explicit shorthand for cold-blooded murder.
Temple was an old hand, but had always felt there was something a bit sordid about actively killing someone on the other side. Turncoats did not weigh on his conscience. Double agents, or local players duping both sides, they were easily dispatched without a moment’s thought. But ‘terminating’ chaps engaged in the careful waltz of international intrigue just as honestly as the next man? Temple supposed it had to be done, but it didn’t sit well with him.
The target this evening – or by now, this morning – was a KGB figure, so the briefing said. He was, apparently, simply too good at his job to be left alive. Neither side of the Cold War wanted to set a precedent for massacring each other’s best and brightest; but sometimes an agent achieved that unenviable accolade of transcending his job and becoming an ‘asset’. And assets, be they radio transmitters or living, breathing men, sometimes needed to be eliminated.
Temple reached the door. Taking a moment to recall the exact layout of the hotel room, he retrieved the key (it had been left for him under a newspaper in the panorama restaurant, where he had enjoyed a light supper three hours ago) and placed it in the lock. The sounds coming from the other side of the door suggested Temple would be entering in a moment of some intimacy. From experience, Temple knew that would either simplify or complicate matters.
It always happened very quickly. This time was no exception. As expected, a woman’s scream was heard first, and the bitch actually put herself between Temple and the target. This was another scenario which did not trouble Agent Temple.
Two shots to the torso felled the woman, by which time the target had cleared the bed and got halfway across the room. Temple fired twice more, the gun bucking in his hand.
And that was that. Another job done, and no further instructions. Just turn around, take the stairs, tip the doorman and hail a cab. Textbook, just like the rest of the operation. Temple turned and stepped towards the door, but something stopped him.
The target had not tried to defend himself. Even in the brief window of opportunity that his late mistress had granted him, he had not chosen to launch himself at Temple, nor make his way to the window. Instead, he had lunged for his own attaché case, opened it up, and headed not for safety, but for the fireplace. His naked body lay still now, glowing a light orange thanks to the flames. Temple knew his orders were to get in and get out. But the attaché case was there, and the fellow’s first thought had placed its destruction ahead of saving his own life. What was the harm in picking it up?
It wasn’t particularly heavy. But Temple had a feeling that whatever it was, it was important.
‘We must stop meeting like this.’
Sir Michael Hanley and Sir Maurice Oldfield met often enough for Sir Michael to have become thoroughly tired of that joke. It was almost enough to make him miss the days when MI5 and MI6 barely spoke to one another at all and operated simply in a spirit of mutual contempt. As Big Ben distantly struck seven, Sir Michael, the Director-General of MI5, stirred his tea and tapped his spoon against the side of the cup. Sir Maurice, the Chief of MI6, sat down.
‘Good morning, Maurice. To what do I owe the pleasure?’
‘I’ll skip to business, if you don’t mind. Rather a long one today.’
Sir Michael sipped his tea. ‘Of course.’
‘It’s about something one of my people in East Berlin picked up. It could be nothing.’
‘I doubt you would have wanted to meet before breakfast if it were nothing.’
Sir Maurice reached into his briefcase. ‘You can judge for yourself. I have it here.’
‘What is it?’
‘It seems to be a summary of Soviet ‘agents of influence’ in the West, in the aftermath of Guillaume’s exposure in Germany. Part of what makes it so interesting is that it’s in the Soviets’ most complex cipher, which of course makes it much harder to glean exactly what’s going on, but…’ Sir Maurice trailed off.
‘Well?’ said Sir Michael, sipping his tea.
‘One thing that our boys very swiftly picked up on was a lot of information coming from… well.’
‘Coming from where?’
Sir Michael’s eyes narrowed. ‘We both know there’s still the odd mole here and there, Maurice. In Five and in Six. If you’ve got something about one of ours…’
‘I would share it with you so it could be dealt with internally. I know you would do me the same courtesy. But that’s not why I’m here.’
‘Then why are you here?’
There was a long silence before Sir Maurice spoke again. He seemed to be considering how best to phrase whatever he was going to say.
‘I fear the inescapable conclusion from this document – unless it’s a ruse, which we can’t rule out – is someone outside the Services themselves.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘The positioning of this agent. According to this document – again, if we’re deciphering it correctly – he’s on a level higher than anyone else. Higher than Guillaume, and he was an aide to the West German Chancellor, for God’s sake!’
‘What are you saying?’
Sir Maurice leant forward and spoke as slowly and as clearly as possible.
‘I’m asking if you still have that file on “Norman John Worthington”.’
Sir Michael turned white.
Thirty hours later, the senior staff of the Security Service, along with one middle-ranking officer, were assembled in the Director-General’s office. In a break with protocol, the middle-ranking officer was dominating the conversation.
‘I have been saying this for years,’ Peter Wright was saying fiercely, ‘and none of you listened. Not one.’
‘We should not get ahead of ourselves,’ Sir Michael said, raising a hand, ‘the Worthington file is not, frankly, good intelligence. It is full of speculation and, as far as I can tell, no small number of paranoid ramblings. Yesterday’s findings in Berlin may well suggest some of the allegations are correct, but at present we have no reason to believe that this is any more than coincidence. Worthington—’
There was an icy silence. Until Wright’s flat interjection, nobody, not even the Director-General, had yet said “Worthington’s” real name out loud. Now, it was as if a seal had been broken.
‘Yes,’ Sir Michael said slowly, ‘but the question is how to proceed, from an operational standpoint.’
‘The obvious answer is to send that bobby outside Number 10 upstairs, get the cuffs on the bastard and let us take it from there.’
‘Peter, we cannot arrest him. Not without more evidence. If you are wrong, it would destroy the Service.’
‘If I am right, he will destroy the country.’
‘Pithy. But my point stands.’
Wright scowled and paced. ‘Isn’t this what the civil service are for? Couldn’t the men in grey suits sit him down in a room and explain the game is up?’
‘And what would that prove? If he’s innocent, he will protest and demand a purge of the Service. If he is guilty, he will protest even louder and we will be unable to tell the difference.’
The tall, gaunt head of interrogations gave a polite cough. Sir Michael shot him a look.
‘Whatever you are picturing in your mind, Hopkins, cease at once.’
Hopkins dutifully cast his eyes to the floor.
‘There is another way,’ Wright said.
‘And what is that?’
‘Smoke him out.’
‘You have a way with words, Peter, but you are trying my patience. What do we actually do?’
‘I am glad you asked.’
Peter Wright reached into his shoulderbag and retrieved a folder marked ‘Plan B’.
Four hundred miles away, and fifteen hours later, a Viennese barman jogged into the street, waving a briefcase.
‘Mein herr!’ he shouted after the Englishman who had left in a hurry, ‘you forgot your–’
‘I will take it to him,’ said a tall man in a dark coat. His accent was not English. Before the barman could object, the man’s firm grip had taken the case from him, and the Englishman, his case, and its new owner were gone as quickly as they had appeared. The barman could have sworn the second man went in the opposite direction to the first.
Within ninety minutes, a man in shirtsleeves was shouting orders into a telephone. He was stood in the basement of a building in Vienna that purported to be a wholesalers for haberdashery, though nobody had successfully carried out a transaction there in recent memory. It was, of course, the headquarters of the Austrian station of the KGB, and unbeknownst to either side of the Cold War, was located only five hundred yards away from the Viennese home of the French DSGE. At this moment, it was early afternoon, and the head of the station was sweating. The man in the dark coat was stood at his side, as well as a wiry man in glasses and a knitted pullover.
‘Are you sure of what it says?’ barked the shirtsleeved man, known to everyone in the building only as “K”. He was covering the receiver now.
‘I am as sure as can be,’ said his chief codebreaker, the man in the pullover, ‘they are about to expose a high ranking agent operating in England.’
K frowned and listened to see if he had been connected to Moscow yet. He had not. The man in the dark coat, Pyotr, spoke up.
‘It is irregular for an English agent to simply leave papers behind in a café. We cannot be sure it is not a trick.’
K hushed Pyotr with some urgency. Moscow was on the line. Stating the required code-phrases to be connected directly to Lubyanka, he gripped the received tightly as he began to speak as calmly and as clearly as he could.
Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov had his hands clasped together, and his face in a pondering expression. Like most things the head of the KGB did, it was at least partly an act, but he was very definitely deep in thought.
‘And you are certain?’ he asked.
‘As certain as it is possible to be.’
All the same, the chain-smoking undersecretary could not look more nervous. Andropov mused for a few moments.
‘These files. How did they come into the possession of Vienna station?’
‘They were acquired by a field agent tailing a known British operative.’
The undersecretary rifled through his notes. ‘He… he was first identified four months ago.’
‘There is little doubt, then. Or if there is, the risk if we are wrong is still too great.’
‘How should we proceed?’
Behind his glasses, the eyes of the Commissar for State Security hardened.
‘Get him out. Now.’
As aides rushed from the room, wheels began to turn.
‘The damn thing is still on the blink!’
Joe Haines, Press Secretary to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, bashed the top of the television with a snarl. Already midnight, it was still a matter of confusion to him why the Prime Minister had suddenly decided to take an interest in an urgent statement from the Soviet Foreign Minister to the United Nations. Harold Wilson, a man whose views of international affairs were as parochial for all that they were Hobbesian, had blundered up from dinner half an hour ago and demanded that a television be brought into his office. Since then, both Haines and Marcia had been trying to find clear signal within the rambling Georgian terrace as their paymaster paced backwards and forwards in front of the window.
It had been an unusual day for the Downing Street Private Office. Wilson, never a man prone to distraction, had been off-keel for most of the afternoon. He had barely spoken at Cabinet, seemingly content for Healey and Foot to vent their spleens at one another, leaving Callaghan as an unwilling mediator. Most of the meeting had seen the Prime Minister slumped unhappily in his chair, puffing away on the ubiquitous pipe, while he heard that sterling had fallen another quarter per-cent against the Deutschmark. Wilson had only stirred only twice during the entire two-hour discussion, once to talk against Benn’s latest demands to deal with the crisis at Leyland, the other to give Mason some vague praise over Northern Ireland.
Outside immediate family, Haines and Marcia were the people who probably knew Harold Wilson’s mannerisms the best, yet a murmured conversation between the two had left both nonplussed as to what had sapped his energy so much over the past two weeks. It was clear to both of them that the Prime Minister had already made a decision to stand down prior to the next election. A tasteful moment to exit was required, but the Silver Jubilee was still almost two years away, and neither of them were confident that he could make even to Christmas.
With the Baroness Falkender almost leaning out into the freezing November air, the signal finally cleared. Wilson’s reaction was immediate, rushing to an armchair and almost collapsing into it. As far as Haines could make out, he was devoting almost an obscene amount of attention to Gromyko’s speech. Why? It wasn’t as though there were a shortage of matters requiring his attention. The Bank of England had released yet another warning of the financial situation and with the Department of Employment’s latest warnings regarding the newest setback for the Social Contract, all seemed to point towards fiscal disaster. Meanwhile, the furore over the IRA hit on Hugh Fraser, which had spectacularly failed to kill the MP for Stafford and Stone whilst blowing his neighbour, one of the world’s leading cancer specialists, to smithereens, had contributed to a sense of the entire capital being under siege. As the weak light of the reading lamp illuminated Wilson’s yellowing skin and drooping jowls, both staffers shared a glance that was tinged with emotion. Being Prime Minister at a time of national crisis such as this would break any man, and while Harold had led Labour from the front since Hugh’s death, it was clear that he was fading away.
‘…demand clarification from both President Ford and acting-Head of State Carlos to ensure that the democratic will of the Spanish people will be fully recognised…’
Haines sometimes wondered if there was a sweepstakes at the UN to see who could provide the most mismatched translator. Andrei Gromyko, the second or third most important man in the Kremlin, appeared to be miming to a high-pitched woman’s Maritime Canadian accent. Wilson was now leaning forwards, his jaundiced nose almost touching the screen. The acrid tobacco smoke was obscuring Haines’ vision, but it was clear that the Prime Minister was less interested in the rhetoric than in the picture. Despite everything, Wilson’s eyes had not lost any of their characteristic sparkle as they focused intently on the figure on the podium below the watchful eyes of the UN Secretary General. Generalissimo Franco was still dead, but Harold Wilson, it appeared, was very much still alive.
Marcia and Haines shared another slightly concerned glance as Gromyko continued to pontificate about the situation in Madrid. The Baroness Falkender looked again at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece that had belonged to one of the Pitts as it chimed the quarter-hour. Whilst Wilson’s attention to matters in the Mediterranean was certainly a welcome change, the stock market seemed to represent a more pressing concern than package holidays to Torremolinos. She sighed again, clearly hoping that the Belarusian would just get on to whatever the Prime Minister was waiting for so she could get an early night. As Haines moved to sit down, Wilson suddenly spoke, not taking his eyes off the screen.
‘Marcia, what colour would you say that Mr Gromyko’s napkin is?’
Squirming slightly at Wilson’s terminal insistence on refraining from any vaguely aristocratic term, Williams squinted at the screen.
‘I can’t really tell from this distance, it looks like… lilac.’
It was indeed a strange flash of colour to see on the Politburo member’s otherwise utilitarian suit. The Private Secretary was not an expert on Russian tailoring, but the rather garish pocket-square sat rather tastelessly against the grey lapels and white shirt in such a way that seemed as if it was out to deliberately clash with the monochrome outfit.
‘Could quite well be for a national festival or something? I suppose that could be why he’s now waving it about like that.’
Wilson stared at the television for a few moments more, then swallowed hard. Putting the pipe to one side, he stood up and headed back towards the desk and started gathering some papers. He appeared to have made a decision of some kind.
He looked up at them both and spoke politely. ‘Could you get my overnight bag from the apartment, Marcia? Also, Joe, get the car ready.’
Both staffers jumped at the sudden change in tone and again shared a concerned glance at each other. Leaving Downing Street in the dead of night was not unheard of; but most late meetings, for obvious reasons, tended to involve others coming to Wilson. Haines made to ask a question, but quickly changed his mind when Marcia sharply narrowed her eyes. Joe opened the door for the two of them to leave the office; they walked nonplussed down the corridor, each mulling over the events of the past half-hour. Neither spoke.
Harold Wilson smiled humourlessly to himself as his Press and Personal Secretaries left the room. He surveyed his Kingdom for the last time, taking care to note the damp creeping up around the skirting board and the mousetrap left over in the corner.
Was this it? The ‘urgent briefing’ carried out by Gromyko himself matched the pre-agreed signal. The colour of the pocket-square was unarguable. There was some ‘certainty measure’ that meant he could listen to the dawn Radio Moscow bulletin and see if there was a specific reference to tractor production or something, but he couldn’t quite remember it now and besides, how often did the Soviet foreign minister give an unscheduled speech to the UN while waving a garish lavender hankie around? Yes, there was no getting away from it.
In spite of the rot, both literal and otherwise, he’d miss Downing Street. He’d miss Mary and the children, too, but there was always a possibility of them joining him if they wanted to. What mattered now was moving quickly and in a manner that did not arouse suspicion. A car to the coast, a rendezvous at the agreed co-ordinates, and onwards to… somewhere. All would become clear soon enough, he supposed as he toasted a bust of David Lloyd George with his final whisky of the day.
Minutes later, Marcia Williams found the Prime Minister waiting in the downstairs service corridor. Handing him his bag, she nodded as he repeated his gratitude.
‘Joe says the car is ready and waiting. Will you be wanting any further luggage packed?’
‘No, I’m travelling light.’
The Prime Minister shifted awkwardly on the balls of his feet, as he only ever seemed to do in private. ‘Well, goodbye.’
‘Yes! Sorry. I’ll let you get on,’ Williams said, ‘incidentally, I’m sure you’ve told the drivers and everyone, but where are you off to?’
‘I’m just going to the East, Marcia.’
‘Something like that.’
And then he was gone.