London, Tuesday 17th December
Doctor Whittard, the chief Librarian, was not a happy man. The biggest problem when running a government department that does not officially exist is the filling in of forms. Government runs on paperwork and in order to get anything done, the appropriate forms have to be filled in. Fully filled in, particularly the boxes marked:
* 4c. – Staff ID & grade of requesting manager (see notes 23-47)
* 7g. – Department Accounting ID (see notes 84-89)
* 24a. – Office Address (including room locator ID, floor # and building identifier code, see notes 132-219)
These always proved troublesome. Dr. Whittard did not have an official title. To anyone who needed to know, he was known as the Chief Librarian, but not many people did need to know this and so for certain bureaucratic purposes he was nominally at times an external consultant, a farming policy director and ever so occasionally a submarine commander. Similarly, his department never appeared in audited government accounts and their funding came via any number of imaginative routes; often quite literally so.. much of last years budget was diverted from a non-existent motorway link between Staines and Egham.
Even the location of the Library was hard to describe. Their main ‘branch’ was in Ipswich, Massachusetts but gave its address as Cardiff. The real Cardiff branch was actually in Swansea, and although most of the rest of the staff worked out of the GCHQ building in Chelmsford, this information was too sensitive to be known even to them, so they were told they worked for MI6, which was told as little as possible. Dr. Whittard himself worked from an office above a MacDonalds restaurant near Victoria station, but if he stepped out of his office into the hallway he would technically be on American soil. This made it very difficult to get his room cleaned by government cleaning services without a nightmare of visas and work permits and also meant that his internal post often crossed the Atlantic several times before he received it. Today’s form was more problematic than usual. Dr. Whittard had never had to fill in a missing personnel report before. Certainly not for a member of staff who was working out of an American office on a project almost no-one else in Her Majesty’s government knew about, who had never been formally employed and who was a law unto herself anyway.
As he did whenever he needed to think, Dr. Whittard turned on the vacuum and started hoovering his office carpet. He was making good progress with the cleaning and was going into down promising philosophical avenues about whether he even needed to make a missing persons report for a member of staff who did not officially exist when the door burst open. Dr. Whittard was crouched awkwardly trying to reach that difficult spot down beside the document shredder and when the bustling Major-General Earl Grey III tripped over the vacuum hose they were both sent tumbling to the ground.
“Jesus Henry Christ, Whittard! What in Satan’s name are you doing, man?”, the General shouted, leaping to his feet, his gun already drawn. “Good morning, General. Just clearing away the cobwebs.” Whittard reply, righting himself more gingerly and turning off the vacuum cleaner.
Dr. Whittard did not like Americans. As a statistician he knew it was wrong to generalise from a single case but he disliked General Grey so much that it spilled over to discolour his view of all things American. But this was as nothing to the General’s dislike for Dr. Whittard, which was nothing personal, merely a particular intersection of the General’s most intense dislikes and suspicions. He did not trust any civilians, he was suspicions of all non Americans and strongly disliked anyone clever. General Grey hated Dr. Whittard.
There are two types of people in the intelligence world. Those with intelligence and those who wish to act on it, the thinkers and the doers. There was never less of a doer that Dr. Whittard and it was one of General Grey’s proudest boasts about himself that he was not a thinker.
“Never mind. Never mind. What about this stinking soothsayer, Whittard?”, the General demanded.
“Camellia? She appears to have disappeared, General.”
“I know that! What are you doing about it?”
“Ah yes,” said Whittard perking up that the General might approve that he actually been working on this. “I am filling in the 4296-f right now.”
“What in Jericho’s walls is a 4926-f?”
“A 4296-f,” Whittard automatically corrected, his passion for accurate facts catching him out even when another part of his brain knew that nothing annoyed General Grey more than being corrected.
“Do you think you could stop pointing your gun at me please General?”
When he had first had to start working with General Grey on this project 18 months before, Walter Whittard had thought long and hard of ways to arrange an early retirement. He had even gone so far as to request an appointment with Mr. Taylor of Harrogate. But Mr. Taylor was not the man he was without being able to guess what the meeting would be about. He was also not the sort of man to attend meetings unless he had too, and because he was the man he was, he did not have to. Besides, although his office was listed officially (which is to say unofficially) as Harrogate (which is to say Menwith Hill airbase, the largest covert listening post in the world), it was understood by everyone who needed to know that no-one needed to know where Mr. Taylor actually was. Dr. Whittard knew this and so knew that asking for a meeting with T. (as he was sometimes known) was pointless. But Dr. Whittard was desperate. Mr Taylor solved the problem with a one line email. It read:-
Walter, You realise that I am your manager? T.
It was a rhetorical question and once Dr. Whittard realised it he ceased to be afraid of Major General Earl Grey III and stopped thinking of early retirement. Whittard still disliked Grey immensely but Mr. Taylor’s email had reduced Grey’s ability to make him miserable.
General Grey was miserable at having to holster his gun without using it. He hated civilians. He hated limeys. He hated the new world of intelligence where knowledge was power and power, particularly firepower, was passÈ. Nowadays, they thought they could do everything with battalions of computers and a few think tanks filled with university hotshots. But all these bubbleheads did was add more hot air to the fog of war. For every threat analysis there were three alternative theories but never any initiative. Intelligence had become university debating club and he could not see the point of it. Especially since when it came to a crisis they all panicked and came running to him to sort it out. To the General with his big battalions and real sharp-shooters, who solved problems in the good old fashioned ways of military intelligence; shoot first, shoot second and shoot anyone who asks you to fill in a form afterwards.
“Look General, at the moment all we know is that Bob Tetley says Camellia hasn’t been down to the stacks for a week or so. They had been making great progress with Spyder-Eyes but it was wearing them both out. He thinks she just needed a break. He is not too worried as she has vanished without telling him before. I don’t like spying on my own employees but since this is a rather sensitive project I was going to get authorization and resources to check up on her.”
“Methuselah’s beard! The point-man on a code 17 project goes AWOL and you spend a week worrying about pennies and her privacy before putting out an alert?”
“Pounds, pennies and our privacy. It costs money and draws attention to us to get the alphabets chasing after someone who might just be on holiday.” Whittard replied.
“Forget the fibbies and the clowns, I will find her myself and bring her back in.”
“Just find her please General. Library staff are a delicate bunch, they need to be handled carefully.”
“I will find her, but if she turns up in Russia, China or North Korea, I am going to..” The General was reaching for his gun.
“The Russians are our allies, General,” Whittard quickly interrupted.
“Not on this, Whittard, Not on this.” came the reply as General Grey turned on his heel and marched from the room. Dr. Whittard had to concede that for once it was the General who was correcting him.
Lipton arrived in Greenwich at a quarter past ten. He was early, which was not his custom but this was an unusual occasion. He hoped to be there before Camellia to give himself the opportunity to gain composure and practice a nonchalant reaction to seeing her for the first time in four years.
There was a light rain. Lipton had not bought an umbrella but the rain was no more than a refreshing mist so he did not seek shelter. Nevertheless there were not many people about. A few locals; middle class mothers with fat babies in huge off-road pushchairs, pensioners with dinky dogs in small tartan coats. Then there were the ubiquitous Japanese tourists, already camcording this historic World Heritage site for their own inscrutable reasons whilst a crocodile of miserable looking English school children where learning to resent their heritage as their history teacher tried to teach them about the world.
The Cutty Sark stood solidly in its permanent dry dock. Her sleek prow pointing north by north north east, and all three masts and their spars criss-crossed with miles of stays, clew lines and other rigging wires although she had not seen even a course sail in over sixty years. This was once the fastest ship on earth, running the trade winds carrying Chinese tea and later Australian wool at record speeds over all the world’s oceans. Now she would stay on land for the rest of her life and the world would come to visit her as she plied her latest trade in tourism.
As Lipton got closer to the land locked boat, he thought about the last time he and Camellia had been here. It was in the optimistic early years of his abortive career as a lawyer. He had met her for lunch here in Greenwich. She had spent most of the meal teasing him about his attempt to be a serious adult with a grown-up job. Then they’d come aboard the Cutty Sark to take a look at it. Chasing him up from the cargo hold she teased him about his shoes. The new expensive leather shoes that he had bought because all the other lawyers wore them.
She was right that they did not look quite right on his feet. They were too neat and proper for someone so preternaturally scruffy. Her amusement with him had been affectionate. She wanted him to spend the rest of the afternoon with her. He wanted to but felt he ought to get back to his office. She seemed to drop the subject returning to fixate on his shoes. She said she wanted to try one on. Always too trusting he handed her his left shoe. She snatched it from his and he watched balancing on one foot and holding the balustrade for support as she ran off with it. She ran down the gangplank and went straight to the rivers edge where she hurled it as far out into the Thames as she could.
She then walked contentedly back to him. He could not go back to work now. He would have to spend the day with her. She offered her shoulder and he hopped to the gangway. But leaving the boat on one foot was too precarious so he gave up and let his foot get wet. He had let her take him home. He had let her take him to bed.
He turned round. He had been leaning against that same part of the balustrade and somehow she had crept up on him.
“Camellia” He blushed. He had not intended to meet her right here. He caught her as she glanced to his feet. Maybe she was a little embarrassed too? They did a little dance as they negotiated an uncertain pair of kisses to each others cheeks.
“I got your message.”
“Yes, thank you for coming. Do you mind staying here in the rain a little longer? It is too early for the End of the World.” She gestured at her wrist. She was not wearing a watch but they both knew the time.
“I am glad you came.” She trailed off and for the first time ever she seemed to him awkward and slightly deadened, not her usual confident, energetic self. She looked tired. He had not seen her for about four years but she looked to have aged more. She was too thin, especially round the face. There were dark borders round her eyes and the pores of skin were large and darkened. Her hair was different too, no longer the golden Pekoe brown he remembered but a duller, muddier brown. She almost looked ugly. It was a growing shock to Lipton to see her like this.
Camellia had always been unbelievably attractive but never what you could call beautiful. You could see her in a photograph and look straight past her. In the limited dimensions of a flat static photograph she looked nothing remarkable. To see a momentary frozen image of her made her seem ordinary. But in person she was impossible to ignore. Certain to be the centre of attention. She was so compelling, entrancing. As she moved around a room, as she spoke, as she laughed. In everything she was more alive than anyone else, and though they might not realise this, they recognised that she had something. They wished to be noticed by her. Especially the men.
“Lipton, I need your help.” He merely nodded indicating that of course he would help. “Lipton, I know everything, everything there is know.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You always did.”
“This is different. I think I have accidentally found myself omniscient.”
“That is a bit rich, even for you!”
“But this time it’s true; somehow or other I know everything.”
“How or other?”
“I don’t know how.”
“That is what I want your help to find out. Four days ago I woke up in a hotel in Boston with no idea how I got there. I could not remember anything from the previous forty eight hours. But I knew the name of every person staying there, working there, making deliveries or sheltering in the lobby from the rain. I knew their bank account numbers. I knew how and to whom they had lost their virginity. I knew the licence number of every car that was passing in the street. I knew all the headlines in the morning paper pushed under my door. All these things, these facts just bubbled up into my mind. I just knew them and I couldn’t stop them coming. Hundreds and hundreds of them. But I did not know how I knew them or how I got to be in that room in that hotel.” She looked mad enough for it to be true.
“I don’t understand.” Lipton said.
“I am not sure I do either. But that is what it was like. And I am sure it is real, I’ve tested myself every way I can think of. I just know things. I know you had cold peppered mackerel and strong Yorkshire tea for breakfast, that your PIN number is 6924 and that you were out drinking on Sunday night with someone called PG. Am I right?”
“Yes, I think yes… but no.” Lipton searched for alternatives. “Maybe you know those things some other way?”
“Individually perhaps, but all this knowledge keeps building in ways beyond coincidence or subtle intuition. But we can keep testing if you like? In fact, maybe we should. I’ve tested myself but I really cannot think straight at the moment. And I don’t want this to be happening. That day in Boston nearly drove me mad, and it’s not getting any better. If I can find out what happened then maybe I can get rid of it.”
“But can’t you read your own mind?”
“No, my own brain is invisible to me. I still have my memories, just as before but I can only get to them through the front door, I cannot peer in behind my own scenes. I cannot see my inner workings, the cogs and wheels. So my amnesia about those few days in Boston. I guess that this is for the best. It may even be impossible for me to see into my own mind. Like trying to look at the back of your own head. How this happened is a mystery. I need you to help me reconstruct it. To know what happened.”
Within an hour of leaving Whittard’s office, General Grey knew a great deal more about Camellia Kousmichoff but nothing about what might have happened to her. For both reasons he was even less happy than he had been.
Camellia Kousmichoff had both American and British nationality and appeared to have spent most of her life moving back and forth between the two countries. She had studied at both Oxford University and the University of Wisconsin in Madison but it was not clear what exactly she had been studying had not graduated from either. Nevertheless, immediately afterwards she had got a research fellowship at the British Library and then at the Library of Congress. Her father had been an academic, a Russian emigre who had sought political asylum when he had met Camellia’s mother, an Iranian linguist. An EYE-RAIN-EE! The daughter of a Russian and an Iranian. And if that was not suspicious enough, she was fluent in both Russian and Farsi and had visited both countries on several occasions. She had been in Iran as recently as last year.
Over the last few years on a freelance basis, she had done several small low-clearance research projects for main-stream agencies in both the US and the UK. But she had failed several security checks so there had never been any question of her being formally recruited. When Dr. Whittard had proposed bringing her into the Spyder-Eyes project twelve months previously, the General’s direct commander back in Massachusetts had objected strongly. But he had been over-ruled by Mr. Taylor. Now it seemed she had a security clearance at least two levels higher than Grey’s own. (He had know way of knowing exactly how high it was.)
Ms. Kousmichoff had been one of five analysts training with the data-cowl and although no-one told General Grey anything, he had already picked up that she was in a different league to the others. It was common knowledge that she had mastered the basics of interacting with the system very quickly whilst even now the other three were still struggling with that stage. Ashby had progressed to past that stage too, but unlike him she had not gone mad. At least not as quickly. In the last few months, she and Bob Tetley spent many long sessions tweaking the equipment to work in new, different, unauthorised ways. The General did not like this but there was nothing he could do because Bob Tetley had blanket authorization to do the unauthorized.
They had been pursuing one of these diversions in the last week before she vanished and based on the building access records, they had clocked up several marathon sessions. Dr. Tetley worked unorthodox hours anyway but even he had gone home a few times that week. But Comrade Kousmichoff had put in Stakhanovian hours. She had only left the Ipswich complex three times in the whole week and was on-site for sixty solid hours before she finally vanished.
And she had vanished. On leaving the complex at 0623 hours the previous Wednesday, she had had not been seen or heard from. She had not called Dr. Tetley and he said that he had driven past a few times but had never seen a light on. One of the General’s staff was going over to her apartment now to check it properly. But the General already knew that the computer there had not been used to log into any secure systems since that time. It would take a bit more time for him to secure her cell phone records and her bank details. He would find her. But right now, he did not know if she was even still in America.
On the fo’c’sle of the Cutty Sark, Camellia poured them both green tea. She had brought it with her in a silver thermos. It was tea that had brought them aboard the Cutty Sark in the first place, the last time; They had finished their lunch and jointly decided that they ought to take their tea on at their table but aboard the world famous tea clipper that was moored just outside the pub window. It took some persuading to get the confused publican and the ships ‘captain’ to let them take the tea service aboard but Camellia could be quite charming about such things. And it was typical that she had remembered and brought tea again.
She remembered things like that. Noticed and delighted in little details. She had teased him about the half. About the way he had sounded so young and innocent when he had told her ‘ten.. and a half!’ Like a small boy, who did not want to be thought so young. A boy of ten and a half for whom, in his innocent eventful beginning of life, that half represented a large and important part of his experience. It was because of Lipton’s ‘.. and a half’ that she had slept with him. That she had seduced him. It was her clue that he had retained some of that boyhood innocence and spotting it, on that occasion, she found it irresistible.
Lipton had been trying to think of something, anything intelligent and useful to say. He failed but realised that as always she was only telling him fragments of the story and expecting him to infer the rest or just take them on trust. In the past this has worked because she had always been so in control of things and herself. Today, she was a different person. He would need to be direct with her.
“This is not something to do with your job is it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. It might be.”
Lipton waited to see if she would elaborate but Camellia was just standing there not meeting his eye.
“I thought it might be.”
Still she said nothing.
“So what is your job?”
“Look you want me to help you? But right at the moment I have no idea how I would do that.”
“You are right, I need to back up a bit.” She paused and looked about them. “But this conversation is not happening? And you may regret knowing some of the things I am about to tell you… I am an information analyst.. working for the government.”
“You? A civil servant?”
“More a sort of a spy.”
“But that’s worse! Or have your politics changed since I last saw you?”
“I do not actually ‘do’ anything. I just analyse information. I just go read a lot for them and summarise things, find the patterns, point out the connections between things that do not seem to be connected.”
“But it is only a part time job and I only took it to have access to their databases and their VR technology.”
“That doesn’t matter. It is just a job.”
I’m enjoying your tale immensely, so much so I’m late for lunch. Argh!
You may even have genuine literary talent, but I’m going to refrain from confirming this until I see how the story ends. Keep it up.