Authors: Alex Gerlis
Vermeulen peeled off the socks, hoping no one would notice the holes in the heels and then the vest, his spindly legs, small pot-belly, hairless chest and pock-marked shoulders exposed.
Vermeulen could not remember the last time anyone had seen him naked. He felt totally humiliated. He turned round hoping for some privacy, but the guards behind could see him now. He was sure that one of them was grinning at him. He removed his underpants and tried to put on the new trousers as fast as possible in one movement, but only succeeded in slipping on the bed and exposing himself to everyone in the cell, so prolonging the embarrassment. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes again, his humiliation complete.
He stood in front of the men in the doorway, in the rough grey trousers and matching shirt and clog-like shoes without any socks. The guards handcuffed his arms behind his back and the Englishman spoke in an almost casual manner.
‘Things did not work out as we had expected them to, Vermeulen. We are going to have to deal with you in a different way. Follow me.’
With that, the whimpering Vermeulen was virtually dragged out of his cell, across the courtyard, all of which he was seeing for the first time as he was without a blindfold, which he knew must be an ominous sign, and hauled into the back of a black van. He was placed on a small wooden bench which went along the side of the van, with the two men in the new uniform on each side of him.
They drove for well over an hour. At the very start of the journey he had asked his new guards where he was being taken, but the reply of ‘
not a word
’ was accompanied by him being pushed back in the bench. Not in an aggressive manner, but it did mean that his handcuffed arms were pinioned against the side of the van and that hurt. He knew what was happening. They had fooled him. The English were not supposed to act like this. They were going to torture him now and he had nothing more to tell them. He had told them everything he knew. ‘We are going to have to deal with you in a different way,’ the Englishman had said. He spent the rest of the journey imagining every way in which they were going to deal with him and each way was worse than the one he had thought of previously.
By the time they arrived at their destination, daylight had taken hold. The van had stopped outside enormous gates and Vermeulen was led round to the main entrance. The sign said ‘Wormwood Scrubs’ and Vermeulen recognised the prison from the bus. He lived just two or three miles from here and for a while he had a job in the hospital next door. A small side gate half opened and the tall Englishman walked ahead of them and his long gait meant that the guards had to hurry Vermeulen along to keep up.
They stopped at a guardhouse, where forms were quickly exchanged, quiet words spoken and shackles attached to his feet. They continued their progress through the prison, accompanied now by two armed guards in front and two more behind, as far as he could make out. He was able to walk in the shackles, but not without considerable noise and some discomfort as they chaffed against the rough material of his trousers. Down a long corridor with barred windows along one side, through a double set of locked doors and into an enormous room, which felt like an empty factory but in the gloom Vermeulen could make out no distinguishing features, although there appeared to be some large machinery against a far wall. The small group marched across the rough concrete floor to the centre of room, their footsteps and Vermeulen’s chains echoing against the distant walls. As they reached the centre, the tall Englishman turned abruptly and walked towards the Belgian.
He had a pistol in his right hand, which he slowly raised, holding the barrel against Vermeulen’s temple. The Belgian struggled, but the two guards had little trouble in holding him steady.
‘You are of no use to us now, Vermeulen. The truth is that we do not trust you. You have reached the end of the road.’
There was silence in the room, broken only by Vermeulen’s panicked breathing and the echoing sound of the safety catch being released. The Englishman waited. The Belgian’s eyes were wide open, as was his mouth. No sound came out. Vermeulen slumped to the floor.
The Englishman circled the body, prodding it once with his shoe before turning to the guards.
‘Take him away.’
When Captain Edgar came to visit Arnold Vermeulen later that morning, he found the Belgian lying on the metal bed curled into a foetal position. When he saw Edgar enter the room he instinctively moved away from him, so that by the time the door shut he had forced himself into the back of the bed, against the corner of the two walls. They were alone.
‘Please relax, Vermeulen.’ The Englishman spoke in a quiet voice, but Vermeulen had no trouble hearing it.
‘Didn’t quite go to plan before, sorry about that.’ He gave the impression of not being very sorry at all. He drew up a chair close to the bed, very close to Vermeulen. The Belgian was unable to get any further away from Edgar. ‘Plan was to pull the trigger, you would just hear an empty click and realise that the pistol was not loaded. I would then tell you this is what would happen to you if you did not do exactly as we ask of you. Any tricks, anything less than total co-operation and that would be your fate. Except, of course, next time the pistol would be loaded. Only thing, we didn’t count on you fainting down there, which is why I am making this little speech now.’
Vermeulen nodded eagerly.
‘I just wanted you to realise quite how serious we are. You told us on Wednesday that you have met Magpie once. So she knows who you are. That means that without you, we cannot get to Magpie. So you are working for us now. And that means no tricks, no using the secret warning signals that you no doubt have agreed, nothing clever. When you start your transmissions, you do it by the book. If you use any device like a warning word to let them know that you’ve been turned, we will find out. Just do everything that we ask of you. If you don’t, you now know exactly what the consequences will be.’
The Englishman stood up, looking around the room as he did so. ‘Bit grim in here. This is where you were going to stay but instead we have decided to move you back to your bedsit in Acton. We’re pretty certain that no one has been around there looking for you so the story will be that you went to visit a friend in the north. Don’t worry, for the first time in a long while, Vermeulen, you are not going to be on your own. You will have company. Your landlady has very obligingly made arrangements for my men to occupy the other three bedsits in the house. She thinks you are an important engineer and three colleagues are moving in.
The Englishman slapped his hand a bit too hard on Vermeulen’s leg and the Belgian jumped. ‘So you see, Vermeulen, for the first time in your life, someone thinks you are important! Now get ready, we’ve got a busy couple of days.’ To all intents and purposes the Englishman could have been describing the plans for the weekend to an old friend up from the country.
‘Today we need to go to Oxford, don’t we? Pick up the transmitter. And on Sunday ... we go for a walk in the park.’
At ten minutes to eleven on the first Sunday that May, a woman in her mid-twenties emerged from Ealing Common tube station in west London. She had taken care to dress in a manner designed to attract minimum attention. Her slim figure and long legs were concealed by a slightly larger than necessary raincoat that was closer to shabby than smart, but only just. Her long dark hair was covered by a plain woollen scarf. She came out of the station and turned right, taking care to walk neither too fast nor too slowly. Everything about her was calculated to ensure that she blended in. She was grateful for the opportunity for fresh air that the short walk would afford her. A journey that she could have comfortably done in three quarters of an hour had actually begun more than three hours ago in central London. Since then, she had taken a circuitous route. Walking, buses, different tube lines, waiting at stations and then crossing to other lines. Only when she was absolutely sure that there was no chance she could have been followed, did she begin the final phase of the journey that had brought her to her intended destination.
A few hundred yards from the station, on the other side of the main road, was a narrow strip of parkland. Park was perhaps too grand a word. Gardens it was called, but it seemed more like a wide strip of grass to her, buffeted between a narrow road behind and the main road. The gardens were actually split in two, bisected by a broad avenue.
To anyone watching her, her pace had not changed, but she had slowed down very slightly, enough to be able to look carefully into the larger of the two small strips of park. He was there, as he had been a fortnight ago when she first met him and as he had been on every other alternate Sunday for the few weeks before that. On those previous occasions she had not actually gone into the park but had walked past it to satisfy herself that he would be there when she needed him.
She noticed that the little man was sitting on the bench furthest away from the station. Next to him, he had placed his newspaper and on top of the newspaper sat his hat. He had signalled that it was safe to meet. If he was wearing his hat, but with the newspaper on the bench next to him, that would mean come back in half an hour as he was not certain all was clear. If he was wearing his hat and reading his newspaper, it was not safe to meet and she would calmly continue her walk.
The woman entered the small park and casually approached the bench. No one else was in the park, there never seemed to be. It was not the kind of place where anyone would want to sit down for too long, not even the English.
‘Is this seat free?’ She spoke in English.
‘Yes, of course, please let me remove my newspaper.’ The final check. ‘I am reserving this for a friend’ would have been a warning, but by then it would have probably been too late. Vermeulen had done all that they had asked of him and Magpie had flown safely into his nest. He knew that at least half a dozen men were watching him, but since Friday he had been quite clear in his mind. He would do whatever they asked.
Satisfied that it was safe, the woman spoke in French.
‘You have the transmitter now?’ She was looking ahead of her as she talked. She was relaxed, but her dark eyes were darting left and right as she spoke, taking in everything around her. Vermeulen had felt a surge of desire when he first saw her. He knew that a woman like this would not even think about him, but even to be sitting next to her made his heart race.
She had to repeat the question.
‘Yes, I collected it soon after we met two weeks ago.’
‘None. It had been well hidden. It is in good working order.’
‘Good. You can send your first transmission then.’
‘And what shall I tell them?’
‘That I am well and I am working on the main plan. I hope to have news soon. That’s all. They are to be patient.’
Three days later, Captain Edgar returned to the large house on Ham Common. This time, Professor Newby was on his own, in a study on the top floor, behind an enormous desk gazing out of the window and all but shielded from view by a wall of files piled up in front of him. He stood up when Edgar entered the room and pointed him towards the two armchairs on either side of an unlit fireplace.
‘More success, I gather from your message?’
‘Indeed, sir.’ Edgar noticed that the professor was pouring two very large measures from an ornate decanter. From bitter experience he knew that this would be a very dry sherry, dry to the extent of being barely palatable. The first time he had met Newby, the professor had been subjected him to an unnecessarily long story about he how had bought a dozen bottles of this sherry over from Spain before the war. At the time, Edgar had thought better of affecting anything other pleasure at drinking it. Now Newby treated him as a fellow connoisseur.
‘Let us drink to it while you tell me.’
Edgar allowed the merest hint of the sherry to touch his lips before he spoke.
‘As agreed, we gave Vermeulen a bit of a scare on Friday. Made it bloody clear to him what would happen if he didn’t play ball. Then we made a fuss of him, gave him a hot bath and a decent meal and even some wine and a clean set of clothes, though he does seem to have a strange attachment to this filthy cardigan he insists on wearing. Took him down to Oxford first thing the next morning and found the transmitter straight away. Wrapped in an oilskin inside a suitcase, which was also wrapped in an oilskin. That had been carefully stashed in the rafters of a disused boatyard. Probably been there best part of a year, hard to tell. Clever though. All Vermeulen would have had to do was climb the remains of a metal ladder attached to the wall, pull the package out with a boathook that was left there, remove the outer oilskin and then you have a man with a case. Nothing too unusual about it at all. Would be nice to get our hands on the chap who put the transmitter there, but I suppose we shouldn’t be greedy.’
‘Does the radio work?’
‘Oh yes. Have to hand it to the Germans, sir. Superb bit of machinery. Our chaps have had a look at it, given it a bit of a clean-up, but works like clockwork, if that’s the correct phrase. Say what you like about them, sir, but they’re bloody impressive engineers.’
‘And has the obliging Mr Vermeulen had occasion to use the transmitter yet?’
‘He made his first transmission on Sunday evening. That is his protocol, he tells us. To go to the park every other Sunday at a quarter to eleven and if Magpie has anything for him, she turns up at eleven. Appears the poor chap has been religiously turning up at the park every Sunday since he arrived here, terrified at getting it wrong. That was his downfall, of course; he had become such a stickler for routine that the moment he changed it, when he went to Oxford, we realised something was up. So, Magpie first turns up two weeks ago, tells him she is ready for her first message to be sent back to their bosses and he’s to retrieve the transmitter, which he tries to do the following Sunday – the day we caught him. Luckily, we had matters neatly tied up in time for our new friend to be dutifully sat on his park bench in time for her arrival the next Sunday. As I say, he made his transmission that night. Tuned in at the appointed time, used the bible code and told his bosses that Magpie was now active and to expect to hear from her soon. Germans replied back that they were surprised it had taken so long, but to wish her luck.’