Gulliver’s Travels

  This wasn’t going to be his favourite assignment. He disliked messy situations, detested the prospect of violence and he hated India. Yet here he was in a second-rate hotel on the outskirts of Delhi entrusted to act as go-between in a situation where failure might presage the untimely death of innocents. What he really wanted was to go home, confirm his pension arrangements, find a part time job in the city and settle down to a quiet new life. None of it would be easy. After thirty years with the department he was only too aware that once his usefulness was at an end they would toss him out like old scrap. Clear your desk, surrender your pass, get the hell out and don’t come back - ever. If the stories one heard were anything to go by, they would argue over every penny of his severance and quibble interminably about his pension rights.

  Yet for all the burgeoning unpleasantness of what might be in store for him, the thing that weighed most heavily on Jonathan Grindley’s psyche would be finding the courage to leave his wife. That he must somehow reveal to his faithful and long suffering companion, his love for another woman, seemed an almost insurmountable hurdle to his future happiness. The mechanics of separation and the divvying up of communal property were as unthinkable as forgoing the intensity of his new love and the prospect of renewed passion so late in life. It had to faced he kept telling himself, as if to bolster his conviction.

  With a real effort of will he brought his thoughts back to matters in hand. It would be a simple courier job they had told him. Barrington-Smith had briefed him in London. “Travel section has your itinerary details. You’re on a BA out of Heathrow tomorrow at ten. You’ll be away three or four days tops.” He noticed the questioning look on Grindley’s face and added, almost as an after thought. “We need to get something to a party in Delhi. It should be a simple operation. You’ll have a local contact who will fill you in if you need to know more”.

  He’d known Barry, everyone called him Barry, for a dozen years and liked him now even less than he had when they first met. “For God’s sake Barry, I’m not a raw recruit,” he didn’t try to disguise his irritation, “if you don’t or can’t tell me what’s going on then I’m not going, so either treat me like a trusted, long standing member of this department or tell Control to send me someone who will.”

  Barry made a wry face but considered for a moment before going on. He held up his hands in mock surrender. “OK, Johnny.” Grindley hated being called Johnny. “Don’t get bent out of shape about this. You know it’s sound operating procedure; need to know, minimum tell.”

  “Bollocks to sound operating procedure,” Grindley was fast moving towards the warpath. “Since when was it sound operating procedure to send non-field operatives on overseas assignments? Where is it written that the final assignments of a London, nominally desk-based officer, should put him in mortal danger?” He was perhaps gilding the lily a little but he thought his sentiments about right.

  “Hold on there Jonathan, who said anything about danger?” Barry sounded like he might be getting near his high horse. Grindley wasn’t about to let him get on.

  “We never do anything in India unless we have no alternative and you know it. This has all the markings of an off-site contact with terrorists. I’ll bet my pension that it’s a CIS, that’s ‘clandestine in situation’,” he elucidated just to annoy the other man, “which means the Indians know nothing about it and if they get wind, they’ll make things bloody uncomfortable and I can tell you, I have no intention of spending the next ten years sitting in a shitty Indian prison waiting for you guys to pull your fingers out of your arses.”

  Barry looked hurt but sounded resigned, “All right, all right, keep your shirt on. I’ll go upstairs and tell them you’re being your usual bloody difficult self.”

  “Well do that and if the powers-that-be decide I’m not the man for the job then that suits me fine.” Grindley meant it.

  The other man smiled thinly. “I suspect they’ll ask you to go along nevertheless. We’ll set   something up for this afternoon.” Barry rose to go. “But don’t be surprised if they won’t tell you any more than I have.”

  Grindley was apprehensive as he looked around his down at heel hotel room. One thing was for sure; he was glad to be leaving the service. Intelligence work was crap these days. There had been a time when heads were held high. When only the best and the brightest had been enticed away from beckoning academia to join the select ranks at London Operations. A service staffed and operated by gentlemen with strict standards and rules of conduct. Clever men and women had formed an intelligence community that had been the pride of the country and the envy of the world. Not anymore. Of course things had taken a knock in the fifties with the communist infiltrations and the very public defections, but that had been before his time and there had been a recovery. But now the stock of the British was even lower than the French. The Americans shared nothing and believed even less of what they received from UK sources.

  There had always been a coarser element handling what the Americans euphemistically called ‘wet affairs’. Field operatives usually, with some exceptions, had less brainpower but it was accepted that one needed the ‘press-on’ types to get the messy jobs done but now the yobs were running the ship. The gentlemen were indistinguishable from the bother-boys.

  The old pattern, that had stood them in such good stead, had been discarded. In his day you came down from a good university, usually Oxford or Cambridge, already recruited into the service. Everyone went to London Station first. Most were weeded out in the first two years. Those that remained were posted to desk assignments around the world. A select few stayed in London to form the backbone of the service, to formulate strategy, manage operations and to maintain standards. Field operatives rarely came the Oxbridge route. They were mainly from the services. There had always been a strict demarcation and very few crossovers. The tough types and the grey matter sorts didn’t mix, but all that had gone to pot. It had started with the cost cutting. ‘The treasury wants a five percent reduction in operating budgets’, how often had he heard that? Five percent followed by ten and then fifteen; for year after year. Now thugs and schoolboys ran the show and senior officers with years of experience but no formal field training, were being sent abroad on covert missions. His last two operations had been damned close run things and now here he was in India where the danger was as much from the natives as the people he would have to deal with. India had to be treated as hostile territory. The Indians took a savage delight in apprehending the old colonial power at work on their turf. They liked nothing better than banging up UK intelligence personnel found loitering. It occurred to him that perhaps they were trialling some new, low cost retirement plan. Get him killed off or stuck away in the choky to save money. He wouldn’t have put it past them. It was only the thought of her, waiting for him patiently in England, that stopped him abandoning the whole thing and catching the next plane home.

  Getting information from anyone had been like blood from a stone. Before he left they had briefed him a little better. When it had been the Russians and the East Germans with the odd Cuban thrown in, you had known where you were. Now, everyone you dealt with was called Ali and only half of them were out to kill you. Not all Muslims were terrorists but it brought things into a sharp focus when by choosing the wrong one to trust, you could end up with your head sliced in two or a bomb up your jacksy.

  In a nutshell, Afghani terrorists or freedom fighters or whatever you chose to call them, were holding two UK hostages in Kabul, one of them from Stellar Oil the other an Oxfam man. Negotiations had been going on for weeks. Now, agreement had apparently been reached. His job was to hand over the ransom to the kidnappers and get the hell out. The best neutral ground they could agree on had been Delhi. Nothing they offered could tempt the Afghan representatives further away. For some reason the Americans had objected to Pakistan. He would get a more detailed briefing, giving him chapter and verse on the rules of exchange, from the department’s man in Delhi. His cover was Jonathan Wickham, a low-level claim adjuster for Neural Oil,

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