This is a real story, as far as any story can be real, not made up. But who makes up stories, since it is already History? - Historians, of course. And if History is at odds with reality, who should we turn to? - Right, to historians. The correct and interpret everything in the light of current events and trends. It is not worth getting upset about such insignificant things because our past is still unpredictable, and our future is in a thick, impenetrable swamp. You know as well as I do that we are living in times far worse than ancient History, and the Apocalypse looms on the horizon for all of us.
When did all this happen? How did I ever get to The River House, the venerable The River House? You'd better not ask. I still won't tell. Let's skip that part of my secret file; I didn't read it myself. I had already been retired from active duty due to age. In our diocese in Legoland, we retire like ballerinas at forty-something. It's hard work. It's hard work. The bosses, God bless them, understand this and dismiss them in time so that they don't make a mess at the finish line. The bosses want young, healthy, romantic, full of hope and self-confidence. And we... We're like old horses: worn out both morally and physically, although, if - as said Mr. Raikin - if you lean us against a warm wall, even wow! But it's a sin to complain. I stayed in shape and was always ready. Therefore, apparently, and was honoured, and summoned me to his Tommy. Tommy-Mee is the administrator on duty. The ghost man. Nobody knows his real name. Nobody's seen his face. How come? Very simple: he changes his mask every day. Like a Sikh turban on his head in the morning: blue, red, purple, yellow... They're printing them on 3D printers nowadays, like nothing to do. Not Sikhs, of course, but face masks, so no one knows who's in front of you. That's what the administrators of Her Majesty's Secret Service are for. They're invisible and indispensable. Their names are never mentioned anywhere. They probably don't even leave fingerprints. That's the nature of the job.
The message came with a deliberate letter. A polite letter that reeked of arctic cold and made my heart skip a beat like the night before. I, a veteran of the Service, had been summoned by the Center.
- To what do I owe the pleasure, sir?
- Thanks for asking. What's up, buddy?
"How's it going?" - is an informational meme, a question to which you don't have to tell me how you're doing, what you do, what you do for a living, what you drink, and who you sleep with. You should politely answer in the same way, "How are you?" and the decorum of the encounter is maintained. That's how it's done. If you start blabbering on about what's going on, you'll be looked at best as a weirdo or mentally handicapped. And you're screwed. They'll shut you down for good.
- How's it going? - I ask you back. - "Buddy" is better than "son." And what the hell kind of son am I if I'm twice your age?
In general, these meetings in the personnel department of their mysteriousness every time remind me of a gathering of anonymous sociopathic alcoholics in a secret safe house.
- Hi! My name is Alex...
- Hi, Alex!
- I have 34 souls killed by firearms, not counting those strangled and drowned by these hands.
I am rolling up my sleeves and showing off the blood on my elbow.
- But I'm trying to get out of my criminal past.
- So are we, Alex... We've talked to the management.
Oh, I don't like the "we've consulted with management..." introductions. Expect something nasty. I'm a bit of an adventurer, I don't care about the rules, but you have to know the limits. I'm not a show-off. Yes, I do. Yes, I confess, sometimes I have to. But not everyone, just people I don't like. Yes, I avoid people with whom I am disgusted. But I don't need much: I want freedom, I want justice, and I want wi-fi everywhere I put my "foot" in the door. But the price of freedom for people in our profession is well known to me: vigilance and caution. Administrators always consult with the management, the board of directors and the president. The responsibility is exorbitant, so is their salary. Why should they take risks? They are changed, they are removed, they are poached from other services, they have moved around like checkers on a checkerboard. Today there was a big, rosy-cheeked fellow sitting in front of me, with lush hair on his head. Redheaded, as a Scotchman should be. Blue-eyed, with visible two-day stubble. He did not shave his legs, but he wore the latest fashions so as not to be mistaken for a woman. Like, I'm a real man. Here. I have a mustache and a beard. But of course, I knew that I was in front of a mask. A chameleon called "Tommy." Besides, I'd learned to take people as they were, not by their clothes or their looks. The ugliest of them can look more humble than the Pope and even be sympathetic.
Tommy didn't pull the cat by the tail but got right to the point. I appreciate that quality in a man: Why argue when fate is blowing its horn and calling for exploits? And, frankly, we don't know him well enough, to begin with, a discussion of recent National Football League games or the Warriors' handling of someone who's been dealt a blow. So let's cut to the chase.
- You have an impressive record, Alex. Can I call you that? - he asked politely, more as a matter of courtesy than permission. - We're in a bit of a pickle, and I'd like your help with a delicate.
- Special operation," I came to his aid. - It's mine. You are very kind to me.
I've often had to do things I didn't want to do, but that's the life of an agent. We are like paper ships in a stormy sea. We are tossed back and forth. I totally agree with the Almighty: if you want to make Him laugh, tell Him your plans. That's why one of my rules is to stay calm and go with the flow in any situation. Do amateur fishermen have a good joke about that: The Rules of Fishing? - Relax...Relax...Relax...
- Yes, that's right. Operations. It's embarrassing to admit that our resources are running out, active agents are busy, and the Cabinet is cutting into an already impoverished budget. In short, we have a job for you.
I began to wonder why Tommy had chosen me for his dark business. What difference does it make? Because I'm not worth wasting: I'm a half-finished product for the Service, I'm retired, and I'm not likely to be counted out by an adversary. On the other hand, there are some things I can do that younger people can't do, and I'm well known in small circles. And I know how to keep my mouth shut, even in bed.
- I understand. It's always been that way, as far as I know. A living wage and a ridiculous pension.
- Don't exaggerate, Special Agent Alex. Don't be capricious. We know how much you've set aside in a closed bank account for a funeral. Don't forget that many in and out of London would like to honour them with their presence because you've "annoyed" everybody with your drunken escapades. But we don't forget for a moment that we owe you a debt of gratitude. You are our pride. And you are a patriot, aren't you?
When your patriotism is appealed to, it's not clean. It's been tested. I'll give you that. I want you to be quick about agreeing to it. It is not for nothing that the Lord gives us strength for exactly one day and then comes night so that we do not plan what will happen tomorrow. But shouldn't we think before we do something? And then, I don't wish to die of boredom at all.
- Uh-oh. No problem. You have your orders.
I'm not the kind of moron who can just say, "We'll do it, Daddy, in the best way. MI6 doesn't take fools and oafs.
- I can't give you orders. You're a civilian but ask.
- Whatever you want, Tommy.
- You'd better get out of London. It's in your own interest. Say, why not visit a nice southern country where no one knows you? You haven't been there yet, have you? Or have you?
No, I haven't... The Dominican Republic. The Samaná Peninsula. A five-star hotel, everything is taken care of and paid for. How can you forget that?
- You'll start a new life. Maybe you'll finally find yourself. Especially since beautiful women - they are beautiful on the equator. How many married women have you made happy here, Alex, and how many widows? You want a new experience, don't you? Do you want to change the world? Then go for it. The best way to do that is a change of scenery. Your goal is Argentina. How's that?
The best form of courtesy," says Charles Dickens, and he, as an English gentleman and my countryman, can be trusted, "no matter where a man was brought up, not to pry into other people's affairs. But Tommy, I suspect, was not personally acquainted with Dickens.
- Latino? But I don't know a thing about Latin.
- Odd man out. They speak Spanish there.
I've been dreaming my whole life. No, really, no irony. My coworkers who've been there have told me how temperamental the women are in the streets. And what inviting glances, they throw to the left and right. And the tango... Just look at the tango! To die is not to get up. It's all Argentina. Lucky it wasn't Brazil, I'm not afraid of anything, but I'm terrified of Brazilian banana nova spiders. They're worse than the Black Widow. And what about having to live in a new place. We, spies, I mean, are sort of strangers to every one. Alien. So what difference does it make? They say it's all right where we are not. We should look around, check it out. On the other hand, why run if no one is chasing you? - That's right, too.
- Anything else you wanted to ask, Alex, or ask for?
- A raise.
- No. That would look pretentious and trite. Everybody wants a raise. The accounting department can't keep up with the rejections.
- A company car, then? Maybe a used one.
- Bad luck again. As luck would have it, they're all on the road. Not a single one that's out of order.
- How about a diplomatic passport? In case we have to shoot back.
- Not. You're travelling incognito. And don't forget: Poison is safer than a bullet.
- You have a terrible sense of humour, Tommy, didn't I tell you? But at least something. Before you go. Why don't you lend me your machete, huh? Being a target, changing your passport, isn't that worth nothing? And if you have to invade someone's privacy, risk your unblemished reputation? Personally, for me, to be deprived of rides on the London omnibuses and stops on the way home at The Drayton Arms, my second home, if you ask me, where you can get drunk on local brewery products and eat fish-and-chips, is like a knife in Tommy, do you know that half of the hundred and fifty thousand Russians in London City are KGB informers? Did you know that there are streetcar cats, bus cats and station cats in London? - No? And that they're my best friends?
- Don't be sarcastic, Alex. We'll manage with the Russian spies without you. If it's any consolation, you'll have to stop in Madrid on the way. Stay a couple of days, learn the language, look around. But your contact is to meet you in Perpignan, a quiet little place known as "Spanish France," where he will give you the directives. You won't have to go through the cistern in the men's room at the station looking for a bookmark.
- Well, I don't mind if you give him a good dez-infection. I mean the cistern, not the whole station.
Tommy, however, didn't notice the irony. I even imagined for a minute that he was a robot, for he went on ranting like a grouse in the woods; he didn't care whether I listened to him or not.
- You understand, we wouldn't want you to risk bringing a "tail" with you. As they say, God protects the well-to-do. I hope you enjoy your trip. I won't keep you any longer. You'll get your papers, cash and tickets from Margret's office, as always. You know her. And good luck, you'll need it. Would you like to have a drink with me, as the Russians do? You work for us now.
For you, so for you, I agree mentally. My father - may his memory be blessed - told me never to drink alone. In our profession, it doesn't matter who pulls the trigger. What matters is who pays for the drinks. Wish yourself luck, Captain America! You'll need it more than once.