Authors: David Downing
Copyright © 2014 by David Downing
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Downing, David, 1946–
Jack of spies / David Downing.
1. Scots—Fiction. 2. Sales personnel—Fiction. 3.
Selling—Automobiles—Fiction. 4. Espionage, British—Fiction.
5. Man-woman relationships—Fiction. I. Title.
Interior design by Janine Agro, Soho Press, Inc.
At the foot of the hill, Tsingtau’s Government House stood alone on a slight mound, its gabled upper-floor windows and elegant corner tower looking out across the rest of the town. Substantial German houses with red-tiled roofs peppered the slope leading down to the Pacific beach and pier; beyond them the even grander buildings of the commercial district fronted the bay and its harbors. Away to the right, the native township of Taipautau offered little in the way of variety—the houses were smaller, perhaps a bit closer together, but more European than classically Chinese. In less than two decades, the Germans had come, organized, and recast this tiny piece of Asia in their own image. Give them half a chance, Jack McColl mused, and they would do the same for the rest of the world.
He remembered the Welsh mining engineer leaning over the
’s rail in mid–Indian Ocean and spoiling a beautiful day with tales of the atrocities the Germans had committed in South-West Africa over the last few years. At least a hundred thousand Africans had perished. Many of the native men had died in battle; most of the remainder, along with the women and children, had been driven into the desert, where some
thoughtful German had already poisoned the water holes. A few lucky ones had ended up in concentration camps, where a doctor named Fischer had used them for a series of involuntary medical experiments. Children had been injected with smallpox, typhus, tuberculosis.
The white man’s burden, as conceived in Berlin.
McColl had passed two descending Germans on his way up the hill, but the well-kept viewing area had been empty, and there was no sign of other sightseers below. To the east the hills rose into a jagged horizon, and the earthworks surrounding the 28-centimeter guns on Bismarck Hill were barely visible against the mountains beyond. Some magnification would have helped, but an Englishman training binoculars on foreign defenses was likely to arouse suspicion, and from what he’d seen so far, the guns were where the Admiralty had thought they would be. There was some building work going on near the battery that covered Auguste-Victoria Bay, but not on a scale that seemed significant. He might risk a closer look early one morning, when the army was still drilling.
The East Asia Squadron was where it had been the day before—
sharing the long jetty,
anchored in the bay beyond.
had been gone a week now—to the Marianas, if his Chinese informer was correct. Several coalers were lined up farther out, and one was unloading by the onshore wharves, sending occasional clouds of black dust up into the clear, cold air.
These ships were the reason for his brief visit, these ships and what they might do if war broke out. Their presence was no secret, of course—the local British consul probably played golf with the admiral in command. The same consul could have kept the Admiralty informed about Tsingtau’s defenses and done his best to pump his German counterpart for military secrets, but of course he hadn’t. Such work was considered ungentlemanly by the fools who ran the Foreign Office and staffed its
embassies—not that long ago a British military attaché had refused to tell his employers in London what he’d witnessed at his host country’s military maneuvers, on the grounds that he’d be breaking a confidence.
It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl—and, he presumed, other British businessmen who traveled the world—had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who worked from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.
When it came to Tsingtau, the secret that mattered most was what orders the East Asia Squadron had for the day that a European war broke out. Any hard evidence as to their intentions, as Cumming had told McColl on their farewell stroll down the Embankment, would be “really appreciated.”
His insistence on how vital all this was to the empire’s continued well-being had been somewhat undermined by his allocation of a paltry three hundred pounds for global expenses, but the trip as a whole had been slightly more lucrative than McColl had expected. The luxury Maia automobile that he was hawking around the world—the one now back in Shanghai, he hoped, with his brother Jed and colleague Mac—had caught the fancy of several rulers hungry for initiation into the seductive world of motorized speed, and the resultant orders had at least paid the trio’s traveling bills.
This was gratifying, but probably more of a swan song than a sign of things to come. The automobile business was not what it had been even two years before, not for the small independents—nowadays you needed capital, and lots of it. Spying, on the other hand, seemed an occupation with a promising future. Over the last few years, even the British had realized the need for an espionage service, and once the men holding the purse
strings finally got past the shame of it all, they would realize that only a truly professional body would do. One that paid a commensurate salary.
A war would probably help, but until Europe’s governments were stupid enough to start one, McColl would have to make do with piecework. Before McColl’s departure from England the previous autumn, Cumming had taken note of his planned itinerary and returned with a list of “little jobs” that McColl could do in the various ports of call—a wealthy renegade to assess in Cairo, a fellow Brit to investigate in Bombay, the Germans here in Tsingtau. Their next stop with the Maia was San Francisco, where a ragtag bunch of Indian exiles were apparently planning the empire’s demise.
A lot of it seemed pretty inconsequential to McColl. There were no doubt plenty of would-be picadors intent on goading the imperial bull, but it didn’t seem noticeably weaker. And where was the matador to finish it off? The Kaiser probably practiced sword strokes in his bedroom mirror, but it would be a long time before Germany acquired the necessary global reach.
He lit a German cigarette and stared out across the town. The sun was dropping toward the distant horizon, the harbor lighthouse glowing brighter by the minute. The lines of lamps in the warship rigging reminded him of Christmas trees.
He would be back in Shanghai for the Chinese New Year, he realized.
Caitlin Hanley, the young American woman he’d met in Peking, was probably there already.
The sun was an orange orb, almost touching the distant hills. He ground out the cigarette and started back down the uneven path while he could still see his way. Two hopeful coolies were waiting with their rickshaws at the bottom, but he waved them both away and walked briskly down Bismarckstrasse toward the beach. There were lights burning in the British consulate, but no other sign of life within.
His hotel was at the western end of the waterfront, beyond the deserted pleasure pier. The desk clerk still had his hair in a pigtail—an increasingly rare sight in Shanghai but common enough in Tsingtau, where German rule offered little encouragement to China’s zealous modernizers. The room key changed hands with the usual bow and blank expression, and McColl climbed the stairs to his second-floor room overlooking the ocean.
A quick check revealed that someone had been though his possessions, which was only to be expected—Tsingtau might be a popular summer destination with all sorts of foreigners, but an Englishman turning up in January was bound to provoke some suspicion. Whoever it was had found nothing to undermine his oft-repeated story, that he was here in China on business and seeing as much of the country as money and time would allow.
He went back downstairs to the restaurant. Most of the clientele were German businessmen in stiff collars and spats, either eager to grab their slice of China or boasting of claims already staked. There were also a handful of officers, including one in a uniform McColl didn’t recognize. He was enthusiastically outlining plans for establishing an aviation unit in Tsingtau when he noticed McColl’s arrival and abruptly stopped to ask the man beside him something.
“Don’t worry, Pluschow, he doesn’t speak German,” was the audible answer, which allowed the exposition to continue.
Since his arrival in Tsingtau, McColl had taken pains to stress his sad lack of linguistic skills, and this was not the first time the lie had worked to his advantage. Apparently absorbed in his month-old
, he listened with interest to the aviation enthusiast. He couldn’t see much strategic relevance in the news—what could a few German planes hope to achieve so far from home?—but the Japanese might well be interested. And any little nugget of intelligence should be worth a few of Cumming’s precious pounds.
The conversation took a less interesting tack, and eventually
the party broke up. McColl sipped his Russian tea and idly wondered where he would dine later that evening. He glanced through the paper for the umpteenth time and reminded himself that he needed fresh reading for the Pacific crossing. There was a small shop he knew on Shanghai’s Nanking Road where novels jettisoned by foreigners mysteriously ended up.
More people came in—two older Germans in naval uniform, who ignored him, and a stout married couple, who returned his smile of acknowledgment with almost risible Prussian hauteur.
He was getting up to leave when Rainer von Schön appeared. McColl had met the young German soon after arriving in Tsingtau—they were both staying at this hotel—and taken an instant liking to him. The fact that von Schön spoke near-perfect English made conversation easy, and the man himself was likable and intelligent. A water engineer by trade, he had admitted to a bout of homesickness and delved into his wallet for an explanatory photo of his pretty wife and daughter.