5. A Heart of Darkness

Baz tugged at the collar of his stylish Ford-Robinson mackintosh, but as the raindrops were funnelled into rivulets, it served only to chill the back of his neck even more. How Baz hated this part of the Cotswolds with the flat plain extending towards the brown smear of the River Severn beyond. The limestone escarpment in the distance seemed to signal nature’s break with the undulating beauty of the pastures and heathlands to the east. Time seemed to have skirted round this place and the legacy of those years was not quaintness, but decay. Signs with missing letters or clumsily scrawled blackboards gave no clue that the shops were open for business; only the occasional shadow of movement against a dim light-bulb through grey-streaked windows. Large puddles appeared where cobbles had been displaced by the night-soil cart which were later retrieved by footpads as improvised tools of their nefarious trade. The railway line that bisected the town brought few outsiders to this place and, when they did come, strangers found that wherever they managed to find lodgings they were always on the wrong side of the tracks. In this crooked town, there was no right side of anything.

Turning off the main street, Baz felt the decrepit buildings closing in on him as he ducked the buckets of dishwater and the contents of chamber pots that were casually thrown from the upstairs windows into the gulley below. Here and there, members of the local citizenry were plying their grim trades. Three pale, skinny lads were leaning against a wall eyeing him, like farm-hands deciding whether it was time to send a young heifer for slaughter. One of them dropped his shoulder, already to pounce. Baz saw that they were just half-starved kids.  He grinned at them, reached into his pocket and pulled out his old service issue flick-knife. He turned his right palm to them, showing this would be no easy fight. The three youths glanced at each other and retreated back into the shadows.

A painted-faced woman lurched from behind a pillar and breathed the remains of her breakfast of cheap gin into his face. “My, ain’t you an ‘andsome one?” she slurred. “You want to go somewhere out of this ‘orrible rain? Let me warm you up?”

Baz pushed past her and hastened down towards the alehouse at the corner of the street. A grizzled old man was cranking out a funeral march on an ancient, wheezing barrel organ, while a bedraggled monkey, dressed in a tiny fez and a threadbare Saracens shirt rattled a tin cup containing a few copper coins.

Standing by the door was a young woman with a tray around her neck, on which were scattered a few gaily-coloured boxes. Grime was smeared across her face and her patched dress was soaked from the rain. A few golden curls had escaped from under her bonnet and Baz could see that she was pretty. Given a different start in life she might have been at home among the throngs of elegant women Baz would tip his fedora to in Montpellier on a Saturday evening.   The girl gave a cough and Baz started back, fearful of the consumption that had been keeping the gravediggers in overtime at the town’s overflowing cemetery.

“I’m sorry to trouble you mister,” said the young woman, “but would you like to buy some matches?”

Baz pulled a twenty from his wallet and placed it on the tray.

The girl gasped in astonishment. “God bless you sir. My brothers and sisters shall have pottage for their tea. We shall remember you in our payers tonight.”

Baz said nothing but smiled slightly and pushed at the tarnished door handle to the alehouse. It creaked on its rusted hinges and gave way reluctantly.

The Spattered Gibbet might have been a respectable place once. There was even an ancient oak carving above the empty fireplace, depicting a group of townspeople surrounding a garrotted figure on the floor, one raising a tankard while two others merrily removed his purse and stripped him of his clothes. It had been half covered by a gaudy sign in dayglow marker pen announcing. “Ten Jaegerbombs – £6! Ruby Tuesdays –Turkey Twizzler Madras and Double Chips £1.50.”

The place was large and overcrowded with an excess of rickety tables around which a few desultory daytime drinkers stared into space, rheumy eyed, thinking of once-glimpsed futures that they never truly believed in. A few topers scratched at invisible eczema beneath their moth-eaten clothes. Others scoured the racing pages, circling the names of horses that reminded them of dead mothers or lost sweethearts.

Baz walked over to the bar and addressed a pasty youth who was busy picking a scabbed pimple on the side of his neck. “A glass of your best red, please.”

The youth stared back at him in what Baz took to be a hopeless gesture of self-assurance. “We’ve only got one.”

Baz pressed on. “What is it?”

The youth turned and looked a dusty-looking bottle on the shelf. “It just says ‘wine’.”

Baz sighed to himself. He accepted the glass of  wine and handed over a few pound coins. He wasn’t going to drink the stuff; it was a prop. Nothing arouses suspicion like a non-drinker in a Wetherspoon’s.

Baz scanned the room and spotted the familiar figure sitting alone in a corner. The past two years had clearly taken its toll; his skin more sallow, the eyes more sunken, the dandruff on the shoulders of the tattered old RFU blazer a few millimetres deeper. Several empty bottles of Alex Brown Ale were lined up in an irregular straggly row that conjured memories of Gloucester’s defensive line. Baz walked over, fished in his  jacketpocket and threw onto the table a torn sheet of grubby paper on which some words had been cut out from magazines and glued into a message. “Meet me at The Spattered Gibbet on Monday or suffer the consequences. Don’t bring your companions.”

The hunched figure looked up and, with the back of his hand, wiped the spittle from the edges of his mouth. “Hehe,” he cackled, “Weren’t expecting to see me, were you?”

Baz took hold of the back of a bentwood chair, tipped the layer of crumbs from the seat. “On the contrary, it could only have been you.”

He spat something grey and globular onto the ancient linoleum, “No, you’re bluffing.”

Baz picked up the message and peeled back the partly-glued sliver that containing the word ‘companions’. “There, on the back of this piece… it says ‘©Health And Efficiency, August 1979‘. Ergo it could only have been you!”

The old duffer allowed himself a sly grin. “Ah yes..August 1979, the ‘Volleyball Special’. That kept the loneliness away on many a long, dark evening.”

Baz tapped the table impatiently “So if you’ve got a threat to make, make it.”

“Oh Baz,” cooed the old fellow, “I’m not making any threats, I am merely the messenger.” He paused and touched his temple. “It just happened that I knew that someone was very unhappy with you and he might want the opportunity to get even. So I told him I knew where to find you. You see, if he gets even then I get even. It should have been me and Carol sitting in front of a roaring fire, drinking those old cellars dry. We had an order from Brazil for 50 million doses of Carol’s anti-Covid potion sitting at Felixstowe, all labelled up as Bolsonaro’s Batshit Balsam.  But someone tipped off the Serious Fraud Office didn’t they? Someone not a million miles from North Cotswoldshire!”

Baz waved a dismissive hand. “And who was the main witness for the prosecution? Someone not a million miles from The Spattered Gibbet. You turned on that woman to save your own miserable skin and now, while you’re drinking your days away in here she’s doing ten years in Holloway.”

“I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the jug and I hear Carol’s doing just fine – she’s got a job in the kitchens. It was always remarkable what that woman could conjure from a few mouse droppings, a handful of sawdust and a scrape of foie gras. You can expect to hear wedding bells the moment she gets out.”

Baz scoffed. “Marry you? You haven’t got a hope…”

“Not me! Lucretia from ‘B’ Wing. She’s a convicted poisoner.  They’re planning to set up a small business together once they’re out, supplying meat pies to Kingsholm.” The old man drained the rest of the beer from the bottle into his tankard and continued. “But we ain’t ‘ere to talk about Carol. I’ve got something for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dirty, creased business card. “From my principal.”

Baz turned over the card and looked at the name. A simple joke on his part had turned into a cause celebre. The Times of London had published a forthright letter from the injured party and there had been a leader the following day urging Archbishop Justine Wallaby to intervene and negotiate a lasting peace. Some hope, with everyone seeming to want to fuel the fire.

The man wheezed a satisfied laugh. “He wants satisfaction Baz. He’ll meet you at dawn on Saturday at the top of Cooper’s Hill. I’ll be his second. It’s pistols, so you don’t need to worry. I know you’re a crackshot.” He bared a few yellow teeth in a mock smile. “But I did have a funny old dream last night. I was at the bottom of that hill when the cheese came racing down towards me and it was wearing a pair of John Daly golf trousers.  My old Carol would have called that an omen.”

Baz grabbed the greasy lapel of the fellow’s blazer. “Tell your principal that I will be there.  One way or another, we will bring an end to this business.”

Baz stood and turned to leave. The old man watched him carefully as Baz pulled up his collar, tugged at the alehouse door and set off into the grey mist outside. He then reached over to the untouched glass of wine and poured it into his own tankard of Alex Brown Ale.  

* * *

Baz could feel a moistness in his eye as Vickery hovered the arrow over the “End meeting” button. On the screen Camilla and Sophie, sitting up to their waists in the pool wearing matching Azam bikinis, blew kisses to the camera.”

“The young ladies seem to be enjoying their sojourn in Dubai sir.”

Baz was still looking at the screen as it went suddenly black. “They’ve been there for ten months now. Ever since they won the final of Love Island, they’re all caught up in this social influencing stuff. That last episode got the highest ever ratings in British television history – and the highest number of complaints. Now they are cashing in. I shouldn’t complain, but I do miss them Vickery. The old place isn’t the same without a bit of female company.”

Vickery poured another generous measure of Chateau Bastareaud ’83 into Baz’s empty glass. “Might I venture a comment sir, that we might consider ourselves fortunate that we are living in this house at all?”

Baz looked at his old retainer with something approaching fondness. He was right. If the shares in Bazsoft hadn’t suddenly bounced back when they did, he and Vickery might be sharing a railway arch in Stroud. “We were very fortunate, but once all those Love Island viewers saw how the girls used our app to overclock the vibrate function on the Son of Samsung 13, our factories couldn’t keep up with demand.” Baz swept his arm around the room theatrically. “I guess we owe all this to the Power of Love (mind you, it plays hell with your battery life.)”

Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a piercing howl from the hallway. Vickery gave a polite cough. “Will you excuse me sir? I believe Hamilton has detected that we have unexpected guests.”

Baz pulled himself out of his deep leather Gomarsall armchair and walked to the window. He saw an elegant black Mercedes slew to a halt on the gravel. The back-doors opened and two figures emerged into the weak autumn daylight. Baz leant his fists on the deep Georgian window board. “Well…. Jesus bloody Christ.”

Baz was still standing as Vickery ushered the first figure into the room. “Sir, this is….”

Baz gave an enormous grin. “Gregor! I haven’t seen you since Kabul and we….”

The Russian pointed to Vickery and put his finger to his lips. He was in his early sixties, red-faced still fit and with a thatch of wild steel-grey hair. Then he stepped forward and embraced Baz enthusiastically. Baz could barely draw a breath. “Steady on.. I’ve still got the old shoulder wound you know.”

Gregor stood back and held up his hands apologetically. “Of course, how could I forget?”

Baz turned to Vickery, “Please, get Colonel Dimitrov a glass of the MaCrae’s 25 Year Old Speyside.”

Dimitrov shook his head. “There is no need. He called over to the door. “Lieutenant, won’t you please join us?”

Into the room stepped an attractive, athletic young woman of about 30, wearing a chic Polledri trouser suit over a crisp white Alemanno business shirt. Dimitrov smiled. “The lieutenant has brought a small gift for you. In her hand was a neatly wrapped bottle of some sort. She offered it to Baz, who took it and removed the paper.

Baz stared at the label. “I’ve only ever had this once, I think. My god this is rare stuff.

Dimitrov nodded. “It was from Boris Yeltsin’s private cellar. Two glasses of this and you will be climbing on a tank and storming Downing Street.”

“Well perhaps it’s about time…”

Baz stopped himself and turned to the young woman. “Thank you Lieutenant….”

She smiled and offered her hand “Yulia Gotovtsev. It’s very nice to meet you again.” Her accent was almost flawless.

Baz looked momentarily confused. “I‘m not sure that we’ve ever….”

Yulia slipped her hand into her pocket, pulled out a crumpled twenty pound note and held it out. “My brothers and sisters don’t really like pottage.”

Baz raised his eyebrows in genuine surprise. “You?” He looked closer at the golden curls. “The match girl… I would never have…”

Dimitrov intervened. “I am sorry for the deception Baz, but we couldn’t take any chances. We have something we need you to do for us. Mr Vickery would you please be kind enough to bring three glasses. We will serve ourselves.”

After Vickery had gone and Dimitrov had filled their glasses the Colonel sat back in the wing chair and pressed his fingers together. “Baz, we have a mutual acquaintance, who has become something of a problem for us. Perhaps that pain you felt in your shoulder may have reminded you of him.”

Baz let out a slow breath. “Karla!”

“Indeed Baz, our old friend.” Dimitrov sat forward. “Karla has gone mad. Quite mad. We think he might have wanted to defect and five months ago took a plane to England. Then he appears to have changed his mind and disappeared into the most impenetrable part of your country and there he has formed a camp with a group of local people who now worship him as some sort of demi-god. He has learned their language and their pagan customs. We believe he has a plan to set up some sort of independent kingdom, with him as king of course. Lots of people could be killed and relations between our two countries could deteriorate even more. We need to find him before it all goes.. how do you say it… bottoms up?”

“Tits up.” Baz took a sip of the vodka. He shuddered and then felt a warm glow suffuse his whole body. He drained the glass. This is what heroin must be like he thought. “So where do I fit in?”

“We don’t know anyone else who could take this on Baz. Remember how you made your way up the Congo to Lulongo to bring back Mobuto’s chief of police. This will be equally difficult, if not more so.”

“But that was 25 years ago.“

Dimitrov nodded, “But this time, you won’t be going alone. Lieutenant Gotovtsev wll be accompanying you.” Baz looked at the young woman in the Polledri trouser suit doubtfully.  The Russian continued, “Oh, don’t worry Baz, the lieutenant has had full commando training. She can kill with her bare hands.”

Yulia gave Baz a small smile. “Colonel, I am very much looking forward to going commando with Baz. Shall we show him the map?”

Dimitrov nodded and pulled a map from his leather attaché case, unfolded it and placed it on the antique Socino coffee table. He pointed to a spot on the map. “This is the place where the last radio transmission was sent.”

Baz peered closer. “Jesus Christ!”

The Russian nodded. “I’m afraid he is deep in the heart of the Forest of Dean.”

A thought suddenly struck Baz. It was something he had been dreading, but now it looked like it might be the least worse option by a long way. “I can’t do it, I’m afraid. I have to fight a duel on Saturday morning. I would lose all honour if I didn’t show up. In this country, if a man loses his honour he can end his career as a cabinet minister, or worse!”.

Yulia intervened. “The duel is not happening. You were never going to win anyway. His second, I think you call him, he was going to put a blank in your gun. You would have been killed. Now the man you were going to fight will not be there on Saturday. We have made sure of this.”

Baz scoffed. “This isn’t Russia you know. You can’t just ship someone to Siberia!”

Dimitrov smiled and handed Baz a piece of paper. “Well, as you see, we can.”

Baz looked at the printed text. There was a list of Russian sounding names numbered from 1 to 23. Except at number 8 was an English name that he immediately recognised. Dimitrov continued, “It is the Enisei-STM team-sheet for next weekend and it appears they have a new number 8. He will be thousands of miles away from Cooper’s Hill”

Baz was amazed. “But how on earth did you get him to sign for…?”

Dimitrov waved a dismissive hand. “If we can fix Donald Trump, then something like this is child’s play.”

Baz wasn’t sure he felt altogether relieved. Though he had probably escaped certain death, there was every chance that this mission could be worse.

Dimitrov nodded to Yulia. “Lieutenant, will you continue with the briefing please?”

“We think he is hiding in remote jungle just north of Cinderford. The nearest village is a place called Ruardean. Karla is operating under a codename. Anytime our operatives have approached the villagers asking about the Russian Bear, they have been threatened and they have had boar shit thrown at them. They seem to be very protective of Karla. As the Colonel says, they appear to regard him as some kind of demi-god.”

Baz gave Dimitrov a quizzical look, but decided to say nothing. Yulia continued. “We are to take a small boat up the Wye to Symonds Yat and from there we will go across country towards Cinderford. There we will meet with a local man who has a deep knowledge of the area and knows all the secret tunnels and bridges that were built by the Verd Cong. Only with his help can we hope to find Karla.”

Baz nodded. “If, and it’s a big if, we find Karla what do we do with him?”

Yulia looked surprised by the question. She smiled sweetly. “We kill him of course.”

[To be continued.]

For Stan.

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