On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The man who had once been known as C looked out at the dreary, rainswept streets under a cloudy midmorning sky, and he sighed.
His wife wasn’t at all happy that he had been called back from retirement, but neither was she surprised. The rising social unrest, constant political upheaval, and the recession that had damaged every household, were all warning signs. The former C — and indeed once again the incumbent — had watched it all in the newspapers and on the television and on the internet, and when the call had come, he hadn’t been very surprised either.
Thus he found himself sitting in the back of a luxurious but painstakingly nondescript vehicle, being chauffeured to an unknown destination within the metropolitan area, with a very clearly defined task at hand.
But without any indication of how to achieve it, he thought.
C was seventy-three years old, and old was usually the operative word, but today he felt like an anxious but excited father of less than middle age, returning to his old boarding school as an adult to seek a placement for his own child; simultaneously yearning to vicariously glimpse the past, and also dreading what barriers to it had been erected by cruel time.
It was a foolish analogy, and inaccurate. If anything, he was returning as rector or headmaster instead of mere former pupil, and while time had certainly marched on, the nature of the current situation was that things would henceforth march to his own tune. The question was which tune that might be.
Presently the anonymous streets gave way to one of those appalling redeveloped areas, all glass frontage and illuminated signs, young people milling about dressed like Europeans, and exactly the sort of air of optimistic, opportunistic entitlement that had perhaps led the country into this whole mess. Thankfully, older and more refined buildings reappeared soon enough, and before long the car made a turn and then another immediately afterwards, and all at once they were in a courtyard whose existence was probably known of by only a few dozen people alive.
His chauffeur was out and around to open the door in a moment, and C stepped from the vehicle under his own power. A girl was waiting for him, looking anxious and like she’d been put through a trouser-press whole and entire, and he gave what was his best attempt at a courteous smile.
“Good morning, sir,” the girl said, and she surely couldn’t have been a day over thirty. “Everything is prepared. I can take you in whenever you’re ready.”
“No time like the present, Ms. …?”
“It’s just Baker, sir,” she replied, and C had to suppress a wince.
Good lord, he thought. A tradesman’s family name. But one mustn’t judge a book by its cover.
It was something of an old joke in his line of work, but this wasn’t the time for such things. “Of course it is,” he replied instead. “Then by all means show me in.”
A few minutes later he walked into a room that was entirely internal to whichever building held it, and which contained a conference table, six chairs, and five men who had not yet been born when C had left university after his postdoctoral year. Each of the five wore a different expression, and all but one looked up at him as he entered.
“Would you care for tea, sir, or anything else?” Baker asked, and C replied without looking around at her.
“I’ll call for you in a short while. We’ll begin immediately. That will be all for now.”
Baker nodded as if she’d been expecting this, and indeed she looked relieved, which C thought was a mark of wisdom upon someone so lacking in experience of life. She left the room without a further word, and C took his place at the head of the table. He did not immediately sit down, instead choosing to look at each of the five other men in turn.
They were like little boys dressed as men for a school play, and he found that he was irritated at his own mind’s fascination with weak metaphors of education this morning. But he was also at his best, and his youngest for that matter, when he was irritated, and thus he was also paradoxically pleased.
“I would bid you a good morning,” he began, “but that could hardly be said to be the case.”
One of the others shifted in his seat, and C knew both his real name and also the fact that here he was known as BASIL. He also knew that the most significant of those already seated — the one who hadn’t looked up when he arrived and who until very recently had been C’s predecessor — now had no workname at all. The man in question looked melancholy, as if a cherished pet had died a few months earlier, and just now had re-entered his thoughts.
You’ll be lucky to avoid a term in prison, C thought, and at last he sat down. “Let me summarise,” he said. Now all eyes were upon him.
“It has been determined by this institution, in collaboration with our friends of domestic remit, the police service, and indeed our cousins abroad, that under your collective stewardship we have suffered the worst failure in intelligence and espionage since the so-called Cambridge Five matter some decades ago.”
One of the men had the temerity to nod, and C restrained himself from remarking upon it only with great difficulty. He continued.
“Our opposition in Moscow have successfully placed one previous American President, and no fewer than four consecutive Prime Ministers here, in power and under their control. Their express aim was to destabilise the NATO-aligned economies, distance the UK from the European Union, sour Anglo-American mutual confidence, and precipitate both financial recession and mutual suspicion between all those once united against the ideological curse of Communism. Or at least their neo-fascist kleptocratic thuggery masquerading as that ideology.”
C paused for a moment, because he found that to his mixed distaste and delight, he had begun to enjoy himself. He counted to ten in his mind before delivering the coup de grâce.
“In all regards, they were successful.”
Despite being in his seventh decade, C had no trouble with his memory, having been trained with a lifetime of reports and eyes-only briefings. He knew that the President who had been outed as a Russian asset had the Moscow codename CONRAD, and he knew that the Prime Ministers in question had been known to the Kremlin as FARMER, HATCHET, YURI, and STANDARD, respectively. The latter had been in Downing Street for fewer than four months before being arrested in the middle of the night. Extraordinarily, given her gender, she was now in Belmarsh prison.
The five other men lowered their gaze almost in unison, and the man who had previously been C now had a wistful sort of smile on his face. C himself imagined that perhaps the other man’s thoughts were of finally being free of all this.
No such luck for me, C thought.
He had been quite happily retired, doing crosswords and watching his dear wife of forty-eight years doing whatever it was that she endlessly did in the gardens. He had settled into a routine of an evening brandy, too, and of walking after dinner. Recently, he had even been considering getting another dog. But that was all over. Now, he would most certainly die in his new job, which of course had also been his old job. It was like being the Pope, but without any of the moral certitude.
The disaster he had been resurrected to mop up had been a masterclass on the part of the Russian premier, though, ex-KGB hood that he was. His codename in the west was GOLIATH, with the dual purpose of mocking both his vanity, and the fact that he was a diminutive, spade-faced little goblin of a creature. Widely known to be dying of a variety of indignities, the man had clearly decided to take the whole world with him in as many ways as he could, short of actually launching any of their ageing nuclear arsenal.
But let’s not seek any additional problems, C cautioned himself.
He had met his nemesis once, and found him to be intelligent and witty, in a casually cruel sort of way. It had for many years been C’s wish to arrive at work one day and find a photograph on his desk of his opponent shot dead in a snowy forest outside Moscow, perhaps in stark monochrome that rendered the blood around a forehead entry wound as black as road tar. His wish had yet to be granted — but his career was also apparently not yet over. He shook himself out of his reverie.
“My task is very simple,” he said, “We must build an entirely new British Secret Intelligence Service from the ground up. Some of you will be assisting me for a time. The others will never work in any capacity ever again.”
He pressed the single brass button set into the desk surface in front of him, and barely a moment later the room’s door opened and Baker’s head appeared.
“Yes, sir?” she asked.
“I believe I shall take that tea now,” he replied.
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