Dedicated to my friend, GT
It was an unusually warm autumnal afternoon. Martin sat by the pool, nursing a Bundy on ice, while his grown-up kids chatted over him. He was there, but not there. His 93-year-old mind was far away, remembering things that he couldn’t forget.
“Want some more, Dad?” said Greg, one of his four sons. He pointed at the bottle of spirits.
Martin shook his head. “Nah, I’m all right.”
Greg returned to his conversation, all the while keeping an eye out in case his father needed anything. Martin leant back in the garden chair and bathed in the sun, letting it soak right into his bones.
It wasn’t long before the sounds of the gathering faded into the background, and Martin was back in 1975, long after his work as a stoker on a minesweeper. Now he could smell coffee and doughnuts, and he was smiling at Lola, the young waitress in the diner. It was supposed to be American but the food was a shoddy London version. Plus he didn’t much like the coffee there either. Or the interminable rain. God, he missed home sometimes.
Every Tuesday for six months, he had taken the same table in the same diner, ordered the same fatty, over-salted food and sipped at the bitter coffee. Lola slipped him some apple pie from time to time, which made the whole experience bearable. Plus, she was easy on the eye.
Lola was a nice distraction, but an even better decoy in case anyone wondered why he was a regular there. He was watching a man who often came to the cafe. The man was called Harry Chu and he was known to have strong Communist leanings. He was also strongly suspected to be communicating British Navy defence intelligence to his comrades back in China. Harry was often in the cafe because he owned it. Probably explained why there were tasty dumplings and spring rolls on the all-American menu.
His handler had told him the job would take as long as it needed to, which might be years at this rate. Martin’s family thought he was doing carpentry or carpet-laying work in Queensland, while they stayed back in Melbourne. He phoned them occasionally from random payphones and told him the story “Frances”, his handler had given him. A believable tall tale of high-rise apartments with enough lucrative work to keep Martin busy for a long time. He felt guilty not telling them about his work as a CIA officer, but it couldn’t be helped. Their safety came first. He could not risk compromise.
Today, Harry Chu was hurrying about and barking at his staff.
“What up with you?” asked his wife from behind the counter. She waved the knife she was using to cut up burger buns in his direction. “You scare customer.”
“I have to go,” he said. “Urgent delivery.” He held a manila envelope and drew it tightly to his chest.
“Well don’t be long, lunch crowd come soon.”
“Yes, yes,” Harry said, walking out the door.
Martin put down a banknote next to his empty plate, entered the light drizzle of typical overcast day and followed his quarry from a safe distance. He resisted the temptation to double-check the wire was still in place inside his jacket.
“Following rabbit, holding intel,” he murmured.
“Better not be chickenfeed,” came Frances’ voice through the earpiece.
He ducked behind a tree when Harry stopped to light a cigarette. Moments later, Harry crossed the road towards the park. Martin felt his heart thud and his hairs stand on end. “He’s going for the dead drop.”
“Officers in position,” the earpiece crackled.
Now the hardest part of the operation that had been six months in the planning. First to swoop in and take Harry, second, gather the intel as evidence, and third, arrest Harry’s comrade. Too soon and they would lose any chance of getting the documents and taking out two of the major players. Too late, ditto.
On schedule, Martin sat on a bench partly so he faced away from the dead drop. At the foot of the largest oak tree was a fake tree root. This is where he glimpsed Harry bend down ostensibly to tie a shoelace, and tucked the rolled up envelope inside the tree root. Harry rose quickly and began to walk along the looping pathway. Nearly time.
Martin also rose and returned to shadowing him, all the while subtly watching for what would happen next. As he and Harry were now on the other side of the park, he could only watch from a tantalising distance. A minute later, a woman in a tan trenchcoat arrived at the dead drop, She was carrying a messenger bag. She casually dropped it on the ground and scooped in the package in one motion. As she stood up, two officers appeared as if from nowhere and smoothly grabbed her arms. They could have been friends meeting for lunch for the coolness of the arrest.
“Catch the rabbit,” said Martin, mouth dry. The three words he had been dying to say for six long months.
Seconds later a white panel van skidded into view and two more men jumped out and started walking rapidly towards Harry. It was on. Harry sped up and now Martin was running towards his prey. He pushed down a panicky feeling. He was going to get there before the officers. This wasn’t supposed to happen, he was only supposed to tail him. But there was a chance Harry could nip into the maze-like alleyways and be lost forever.
With a burst of adrenaline, Martin sprinted with every fibre of his being. Harry looked over his shoulder, his mouth gaping and eyes wide open when he saw his favourite customer in hot pursuit. He had slowed him down just enough for Martin to gain a little more distance, and with a final gargantuan effort, he threw himself onto Harry and shouted, “Stay down, stay down, you’re surrounded.”
The CIA officers were seconds away and then one said -
“Whose beer is this?”
“You’re drinking mine, you idiot.”
Martin jolted back to the sound of beer bottles clinking and more laughter. The sun was getting hotter. He caught Greg’s eye and nodded.
If only they knew.