ALMOST THERE | ISSUE FIVE
Tinker Tailor Soldier Ken
A gripping tale from the annals of Cold War espionage (Part 1)
I had been assigned—for reasons that need not detain us here—to do a thorough background check on a mysterious figure known only as ‘Ken’. But after months of digging, all I knew for sure about this Ken was that he had a brain the size of a leprechaun’s testicle and a shocking taste in cardigans. I needed more, much more, and I needed it fast. That’s when I hit on the idea of getting in touch with old friend of mine - Alan, once of Special Ops, now a hard-bitten newshound at the Balkholme Chronicle.
Thankfully Alan agreed to help, though I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised, given what we’d been through together in ’Nam. But any feelings of relief I had turned out to be short lived, because not long after our initial meeting Al went completely off the grid. Week after week went by without so much as a word. At one point I heard a whisper that he was on a deep undercover operation for the Chronicle, investigating a worrying spate of milk bottle thefts in the Willitoft area, but of course there was no way of verifying this. I’d all but given up hope, when one day he called me up completely out of the blue. He sounded tense, worried even. I had a whole load of questions but he flatly refused to discuss anything over the phone and told me to be at his favourite watering hole that evening, seven sharp. I got there a little early, expecting to find a grimy spit-and-sawdust joint littered with washed-up hacks and off-duty coppers, but I was wrong. The Abstract Expressionist Arms turned out to be a trendy brasserie, home to a bohemian crowd of poets, artists, philosophers and dreamers. I ordered a milk stout and waited.
When Alan arrived he went straight to the bar.
‘The usual please, Andy.’
‘Brandy and Babycham coming right up.’
We went and sat in the corner next to a couple of marginaux sipping absinthe and discussing the existentialist writings of Camus and Sartre.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘finding anything at all about this pigeon of yours hasn’t been easy. Every one of my usual sources came up with a big fat blank.’ He shook his head and sighed. ‘I nearly gave it up as a bad job, but then yesterday, while I was doing some background research on an unrelated piece for the Chronicle—all very hush-hush you understand—I had a look through some recently de-classified Home Office documents and your boy’s name came up.’
‘In what context?’
‘Well, that’s the thing. It turns out he has a tangential connection to British Intelligence.’
‘You’re joking!’ I exclaimed. ‘Ken might be British, but he’s got absolutely no intelligence!’
Alan nodded. ‘Hard to believe, isn’t it? Well, what I had in front of me was the top secret report of an incident that had taken place back in the days of the Cold War. Apparently this character Ken had gone on a cheap package holiday to Bulgaria—and you have to remember in those days it was well and truly behind the Iron Curtain—when he was unwittingly embroiled in a particularly sordid “honey-trap” operation.’
‘But why would they pick on Ken of all people?’
‘Dunno. Probably a case of mistaken identity. Anyway, before the cock-up had been spotted by the local security services the KGB got involved and poor old Ken was hauled off to Moscow for further questioning.’
(just after he was grabbed by the Bolshies.)
KGB Headquarters: The infamous Lubyanka
Alan took a hearty swig of his drink and continued: ‘As you can imagine, it can’t have taken the boys at the Lubyanka long to figure out a chump like Ken was hardly a threat to national security, but instead of giving him a good hiding and packing him off to the gulag, they decided to send him to the Funfair.’
I laughed. ‘The funfair? That doesn’t sound so bad!’
‘You can forget all about dodgem cars and candy floss,’ he answered drily. ‘The Funfair was a top secret research facility run by the infamous Soviet spymaster Ivan Astykoff.’
‘The silly name? Well, ‘The Circus’ had already been snapped up by our lot, so I suppose it was the best they could come up with. Anyway, whatever the reason, I’m afraid Ken was in for a very nasty shock when he got there.’
‘Did they torture him?’ I gasped.
‘Worse than that. They set about brainwashing him!’
‘I bet they didn’t need much soap!’
Alan looked more impressed by this attempted witticism than I had expected. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘you’re closer to the truth than you realise. You see, in a simpleton like Ken, Astykoff had seen a unique opportunity: here was an incredibly
pliable subject they could re-programme into an unthinking, unfeeling killing machine - a sort of poor man’s Manchurian Candidate. Pity it all went pear-shaped.’
Alan chuckled. ‘Well, the Soviets had overlooked one small but crucial detail. To stand any chance of success with the old mind-bending lark, you have to have a mind to bend in the first place!’
‘I don’t quite follow...’
‘That’s only natural,’ he explained calmly. ‘The byzantine world of counter espionage is like a John Le Carré spy novel, you’re not really supposed to understand what’s going on.’
‘Unfortunately, the nightmare Ken had found himself in was about to get worse. A whole lot worse.’
The only known photograph of
Alan got up to order another round and on his way to the bar put something on the jukebox. I looked around. The bright young things at the next table had turned their attention to the rôle counter-culture had played in the student protests of May ’68. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world. And as the soft evening sunlight streaming in through the windows behind me was suffused by Zou Zou’s beautiful Ne cherche pas, I felt as if the shabby intrigues of Cold War espionage were a lifetime away. Yet deep down I knew that when Alan returned he would resume his story, a story that could only end in deceit, betrayal and death...