by Ron Capshaw
I'm a lonely figure approached by a killer in the rain. He can cut me down in several ways -- probably a hundred if they are training their assassins right these days. As he comes toward me, I realize that it was alcohol that got me into this.
It was when I started drinking cologne that I realized I'd reached the bottom of the barrel. Hands and knees. Broken glass. A blubbering author who specializes in tough-guy dialogue found by cops who tell him they are his greatest fans. My friends put me in a sanitarium in my boyhood country of England.
I was drying out there when I saw her.
She was in a hospital robe but she stood out among the patients, mainly because she wasn't red-eyed and shaking. She didn't look like a drunk, but then neither did I. And I was.
She initiated the conversation. "You're Randolph Bogart."
"I love your work. They are like intricate puzzles. I am engaged in my own intricate puzzle. I --"
She then paled and took off.
I turned to see what caused her flight.
Of course. Our common enemy, the nurse, bearing pills and coming around the corner.
A hand descended upon my shoulder. A liver-spotted hand.
"Female admirers, my boy?"
The colonel sat down. I had known Brigadier General Llewlyn Montgomery through my brief work as a screenwriter in '41-'42. He was a technical advisor on a film dealing with British intelligence.
I appreciated his fruit basket but I resented the interruption from my talk with the female patient.
She came back into my thoughts that night when I found her crumpled at the bottom of the sanitarium stairs.
The police report didn't mention the bruise at the base of her neck -- a bruise that conformed to the shape of my hand when I made my hand into a blade.
The police report also didn't mention that she hadn't taken the medicine the nurses gave but instead had shoved it under her mattress. In fact, the police report didn't even mention her name. Jane Doe, heart attack in a sanitarium.
The nurses were clearing out her room when I got there. I spotted one of my books being removed.
One of my books. "You write intricate puzzles. I'm working on one of my own intricate puzzles."
The packet was sewn into the cover. Police reports from three countries: Marrakesh, 1940, woman found raped and murdered, no suspects. Yugoslavia, 1946, another one raped and murdered, this one a member of the Party. Czechoslovakia, 1950, the same. And fingerprint files.
She was building up a case on a rapist. She had needed the solitude to do it in, and what better place for that than a sanitarium where you're encouraged to be reflective? She wasn't a true alcoholic or she wouldn't have ditched the pills.
Who was she?
No one would talk, least of all the head physician. No admission signatures -- I knew that because I got into the file room. I didn't find out who she was until the commie writer visited me three days later.
Philip Axender, sloganeer for the Anti-Unicorn, a commie rag that detailed the crimes of British fascism. He was infantile and made me sick but he told me who she was, Alexandri Partridge, MI-6, search division.
Her abrupt departure wasn't about getting away from the nurse; she was getting away from the Colonel. But why did she fear a man from her own agency?
"Was she a double-agent?" I asked Axender.
"She tried to talk to me my first day here but hightailed it when she saw Montgomery."
"Montgomery was here?"
"Came to see me."
"You inadvertently smoked her out for MI-6. They've been looking for her for a year."
"Was she thinking of defecting?"
"Hardly. She was disavowed. Fell out of favor for instituting an internal affairs investigation about a year ago."
The rapist. But I didn't tell him that.
"We need your help. You're the last person who talked to her."
"I don't pratfall for Stalin."
He got noble on me: "Doesn't it bother you that this happened -- in England?"
"We don't know that."
"We? So you are with us."
I held up a finger. "This isn't a benefit for Paul Robeson. You have to operate from some sense of logic. Establish a motive. Okay, she was involved in some internal affairs effort, so she's an embarrassment for them. Would that make them kill her? You have to establish why they needed to. Why was she a problem? And her setting. Why stay in England? Why not hightail it to parts remote and inacessible to her pursuers?"
"I can answer that last part. They watch customs and airports. They were expecting her to leave."
"Okay, she's a purloined letter. So she needs time to build up whatever she's got and then she'll bring it out in the light of day where they can't stop it."
We continued building up theories but I didn't give him the packet. Even when he asked me again if I had anything.
A week later I regretted not giving it to him when I read his obituary. Drug overdose. Victim number two of the unraped variety.
An attack of conscience -- that's what got me to check out of the sanitarium and go visit Axender's comrades. Their office fit the stereotype of the unwashed intellectual set. They greeted me with admiration. I was not surprised. Many a correspondent typified my novels as an indictment of capitalist society. They weren't. They were merely an indictment of mankind as a whole, capitalist or otherwise.
I got down to business, waving away the compliments.
"Who was Axender's inside man in MI-6?"
They didn't protect the source but pointed me to him.
Magnus Trenton had been with MI-6 since the war but was disavowed because of his drinking.
"Oh yes, the Partridge murder," he said. "It was a murder. It has all the earmarks of a company job. No witnesses, a seemingly accidental death. She was marked for it the moment she left. You don't leave MI-6; you either go inactive or die."
"Who was she building up a file on?"
"How much do you know about their wetwork division?"
"Not much, except that it exists. Every country has an assassination branch."
"Very good. Most citizens are surprised that their governments kill. Partridge was a courier for a wetworker, a legend known only by his code name 339. He had attained the highest level. While she was working with him, Partridge began to notice certain -- patterns."
"Indeed. 339 was known as a sexual athlete but the rapes were another matter. He had been betrayed to the Gestapo by a female double agent. They abused him terribly. It was after that the rapes began."
"Didn't the agency attempt to rehabilitate him?"
"Oh they tried a few things -- hypnosis, drugs -- but they discovered that when the rapes stopped so did his effectiveness as an agent. Now they even supply him with women."
"Is any of this on paper?"
"Nothing you can lay your hands on."
I paused to light my pipe. "Why don't you tell me where it is?"
He was good. He blinked, but not several times as an amateur would, desperate to put across confusion.
"Your life-preserver. The papers on 339. There has to be some reason you are still alive."
"Forget it. I couldn't get to them for you even if I wanted to. And I would advise you if you have anything on paper implicating MI-6, hang on to it. Your life won't be worth a plug nickel without it."
What would my fictional counterpart, Shelby Steele, have done? He would have barged into the colonel's office, floored him with a left hook and broke open his file cabinet for proof.
I did the next best thing.
On a BBC-chat show I interrupted Cyril Connoly to talk about an idea for a great mystery story. A patient at a sanitarium is murdered by MI-6 because she was a renegade agent building up a file on one of their own who was a suspected rapist.
My cage-rattling paid off. The colonel visited me the next night. He accused me of communist espionage deftly and dispassionately.
I accused him with the fury of the amateur. "You people played God with her. How can you sleep at night knowing you are covering up for that monster?"
He merely sucked on his pipe. "That monster you refer to saved the world during the last war -- not the bloody RAF, but 339. That's right. Your monster stopped a spy from turning our cipher machine over to the Germans. Your rapist kept us standing up during the Blitz. It's you who are playing God. You're judging the entire worth of a man based on a sin -- you, a drunk."
I clapped. "Well done old boy. Your cambridge dons would be proud. But split hairs all you want, it still adds up to one thing. You're protecting a sadist."
He got up to leave. "This is the final warning. I'm the sheath. You'll meet the sword next time."
The sword came a week later.
Rain. A figure coming toward me. He passes under the street lamp and I see him clearly.
He is not what I expected. Instead of Cary Grant, he is David Niven, handsome with a missing earlobe and a broken nose.
He doesn't introduce himself; he knows I know who he is. "When I was chasing a defector who had stolen a germ formula and was about to take it into the Soviet zone, a female cyclist got in the way of my car. Had I paused for her, he would have made it. I hit and killed her and thus was able to stop him in time."
I swallowed. "Gripping story. Did it end with you backing up and raping her?"
He smiled. Then he made his hand into a blade and caressed my neck with it. "Stay off my road."
I was able to hold off vomiting until he was gone. Dizzy, I leaned against a wall, a sixty year old man standing in the rain.
I'm too public. They won't do it. There'll be questions. I can't be red-baited. I'm a conservative snob with a well-publicized record of laughing at commies.
All of this means nothing. They're going to get me if I keep going with this. Who will know this bravery I am attempting? Unlike Steele, I have no audience. There are no readers out here in the rain to witness my stand. Who will know to condemn me if I chicken out?
I gave Partridge's packet to the Anti-Unicorn the next day with explicit instructions. "Funnel it to the other side."
The colonel appeared the next night, and his appearance told me he knew it had been sent. Gone was the suave accuser; in his place was a rumpled, disheveled old man.
"Congratulations, Bogart. You've helped one more domino fall. This time it will be England."
"Oh, you'll be all right. There'll be other killers to recruit, other karate chops in the dark. I know you'll miss 339's wit, but what is wit in a killer? What will become of the old boy? Will he retire to the Hebrides or just fade away?"
"He's finished. The Soviets have threatened to give a speech about his rapes at the UN if we don't retire him."
He actually looks hurt. "Why did you do this? Partridge can't have meant anything to you."
"I was in a gallant mood. She was the first woman I talked to after Adrian died. For ten months I watched my wife waste away, and I couldn't do anything about it. Things like that put a man in a saving mood for the next woman. I couldn't save her, but I could be gallant enough to finish the work that got her killed."
"You're an ass."
I shrugged again. "In your world, yes. But I just realized something, old man. I haven't had a drink throughout this whole caper. Thank you."
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"The Patient" ©Ron Capshaw. Used by permission of
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.