Last Rites

By Adam Hall

Last Rites artworkWe were ninety minutes out of our last port of call, heading south by south-west through a choppy sea and settling in to our final course for Southampton, with a following wind of Force 3 on the Beaufort scale, when everything started happening.
     But it happened quietly, and at first not many people were involved. Later, everyone was.
     "He was a nice man," Mario said, and applied more pressure to my lateral muscles: they were full of lactic acid after a three-hour workout in the gym.
     "Who was?"
     "Mr. Kirkendoll," He pressed harder. "A nice man. He came in here every day, same as you."
     I was lying face down with my eyes shut, so that a lot of sensory data was phased out: there's a twelve per cent loss of orientation when you're face down because the body's not used to it. But the name had started floating around in my head. Kirkendoll. I'd met someone with that name.
     "Where was he from?" I asked.
     "The States." He shifted his hands to my triceps. It occurred to me that I was missing some data: why had Mario started talking about Kirkendoll? Then I remembered. He'd been looking through the ship’s daily news-sheet when I'd come in here an hour ago. The organism was beginning to feel restless: there were things I should be taking an interest in. There were two key clues.
     Kirkendoll. An American, yes; but I couldn't think when I'd met him. But he was in the Company, I thought. Someone in the CIA. Which mission was that?
     Was. He was a nice man.
     "Mario," I said, "did you say there was something about this man in the ship’s news-sheet?"
     "Sure. He just had a heart attack."
     Was. Quite.
     I opened my eyes and rolled over, and waited for Mario to wipe the excess oil off me while I worked things out. Of course it could mean absolutely nothing: on a ship the size of the Queen Elizabeth, and with a passenger list including so many company presidents and world-renowned overachievers, the odd heart attack wouldn't come as a total surprise. And Kirkendoll might not have been in the Company; and even if he had, people in the Company occasionally died of a heart attack.
     You work a sinister trade, you think sinister things.
     But it nagged.
     When I could sit up, I asked Mario for the news-sheet. The most interesting item came near the end of the report.
     Mr. Kirkendoll, who would have been 54 on his next birthday, was enjoying a brief respite on the QE2 between assignments for the U.S. government.
     It wasn't that they couldn't spell spook. Kirkendoll had been working in that department of the Company where spelling things out is strictly discouraged. A department where the stresses and strains were quite capable of causing microscopic tearing down of the heart valves, yes.
     Before he died, Mr. Kirkendoll requested that he should not receive burial at sea.
     "He told me he had a fear of drowning," Mario said. "So I guess it figures."
     After I left the massage rooms, I took a turn on the Observation Deck. The coastline of Norway had fallen beyond the horizon, and whitecaps were rolling across an Indigo sea; a few gulls were still with us, waiting for the galley crews to dump their scraps overboard. The PA came to life.
     Will Mr. Clive Gage please go to the radio room?
     It always takes me a half-second to react to a cover name, because it’s unfamiliar.
     When I went along there, the chief radio officer took me to the end of the counter and kept his voice low. "It's in code, Mr. Gage. I hope we took it down accurately."
     I opened the folded message slip, and stopped thinking about the late Irvin Kirkendoll. "It's letter perfect," I told the radio officer, and went up to the Promenade Deck where I screwed the message slip into a ball and dropped it across the rail. A seagull swooped on it, thinking it was bread: a pretty unusual letter-drop.
     The signal was from Bureau to Quiller and in full computer-scrambled code. For your information we believe Nikolai Voss is on board.
     Leaning at the rail, I stared across the wastes of the North Sea. Nikolai Voss. I couldn't quite remember his face — it was five years ago when I'd last seen him — but I remembered his real name was Nicholas Foster, and I remembered the way he'd looked at me through the smashed glass of the window at the East German checkpoint after the explosion had blown half the place apart and his cover with it. He'd spent three years in Brixton Prison and was then released across the Soviet border, at Vyartsilya, in exchange for one of our people. I'd heard on the grapevine that they hadn't given him a very good time in prison, which didn't surprise me; quite apart from the simplistic view of his gaolers that he was a traitor to his country — as distinct from a neurotic with antisocial drives — Nicholas Foster had always attracted bullies, from his schooldays onwards. I knew this because he and I had been at Priors' Court, God knew how many years ago. It wasn't that he was small, because small men usually compensate by necessity and if you go too near them you'll get a punch on the nose. Foster was vulnerable.
     She was leaning on the rail beside me, suddenly: Beulah, one of the nurses from the ship's medical centre, athletic, a good swimmer — I'd seen her in the pool — not in the least ravishing but with aquamarine eyes you could drown in if once you lost your head.
     "Off duty?" I turned to watch her.
     "Not yet. I came up for air." She was still in her uniform but that silly white cap was off and her raven hair flowed half across her face in the wind. "But I wondered if you'd made any plans for this evening."
     I thought about it. Women don't often make the running with me; I've got a face like the shapes the sea leaves on beached timber, and eyes that have spent most of their life hiding too much; but I seem to attract the kind of women who find the restrictions of everyday life so frustrating that they end up slow-burning their way to hell on their own heat. I met one in Berlin, and one in Warsaw, and one in the army truck that was getting us clear after a frontier-bust in Beirut, the tears streaming down her face because she was happy at last, living where she'd always wanted to live: on the brink.
     That's my home, too.
     "I'm not sure." I told Beulah. "But I might have my plans made for me."
     Her chin lifted slightly. "I sensed you were the captain of your own soul. My instinct was obviously wrong."
     "Not really. It's just that today... I'm not sure which way the seas are running."
     She turned her head a little, without looking away. Under the fretting of the wind, she said, "They could be dangerous?" I felt a sudden chill: in her mind, she'd blown my cover; she sensed I was already outside the frustrations of the everyday world that fenced her in. On the sea wind she'd caught the scent of the lone wolf, who is never safe from winter.
     "Perhaps less dangerous." I said, "than your wickedly accurate intuition."

It took me almost two hours to find him.
     He was on the Sun Deck, bundled into a blanket on a canvas chair, the late sunlight throwing his shadow onto the white-painted bulkhead and turning him into a hunchback. The moment he greeted me, I knew he'd been waiting for me to find him. It wasn't by chance that he'd shipped out on this cruise: he'd known I was on board.
     "Quiller," he said. "Long time no see." His accent was public-school English, despite his fluency in Russian.
     "Gage," I said.
     "Mr. Gage, of course, You're between missions." He watched me obliquely as I took the chair beside him. No one else was near.
     "And you?"
     "I'm — retired now."
     They all say that.
     "They give you a gold watch, Foster?"
     His eyes narrowed: I'd hit some kind of nerve in him. I was listening very carefully now, not so much to what he said but to the tone of his voice. There was something inside him trying to get out: Rage? Hate? Both?
     "They gave me," he said, "the Order of Lenin."
     He watched me steadily, the wind bringing the glint of a tear to the corner of his flint-gray eyes. Hate, I thought; yes. Hate for me. And for others. Over there in Moscow center, they'd sold him short.
     "I believe you realize," he told me, whittling the words out with knife edge articulation, "that they should have given me the Hero of the Soviet Union."
     So that was it. And of course he was justified. Now sixty, he'd worked in the London Foreign Office for his adopted alma mater — Mother Russia — for fifteen years, sending stuff to the KOB worth infinitely more than the Crown Jewels: The Ludovic papers, the Air Defense Memorandum of 1976, the blueprints of the superfast Black Eagle bomber, the complete transcript of the US-UK defense conference during the Carter years, and a hundred other intelligence gems that had made him — once he was blown and tried in court — one of the most renowned spooks since Molody.
     And all they'd given him was the Order of Lenin. A gold watch would at least have told him the time.
     "Yes," I said. "They should have given you the Hero award. You should have asked for my recommendation."
     He wasn’t in the mood for jokes. "They gave me a few cases of Scotch. They gave me a few boxes of cigars. As if I were a junior clerk in the Kremlim." He waited to see if I was listening. I was listening, all right. Beulah's intuition had been accurate, yes. These waters were dangerous.
     "When my wife was ill," he said bitterly, "last winter, I asked for some caviar for her from the KOB store." This was the special store for the exclusive use of the hierarchy, selling gourmet food and luxury goods brought in from the decadent West. "Do you know what they told me?" Foster asked. "They told me to send a memorandum to Andropov, but not to ask for more than two hundred grams."
     There was no way I could console him, so I said: "I always find caviar a bit too salty, for my taste."
     But he took this for indifference. In a moment, he said: "I hate the English, you know. So bloody smug. So bloody arrogant. Those bastards crucified me over there, and you couldn't care less."
     "Well actually," I said, "I can't lose a terrible lot of sleep over a man who spent fifteen years of his life selling his own country down the river to the Soviets."
     He watched me steadily.
     "I hate England," he said. "I always have. I went to school there. You know that." He hunched himself forward an inch. "Even at school, even when I was a child, they made my life hell. You know that, too."
     I said nothing, but it was true. As early as his schooldays, the bullies had sensed the vulnerability in him; and an English public school in those days was a hotbed for the expression of la vice Anglaise.
     "They used to cane me, Quiller, whenever they could catch me. Even the prefects. Within an inch of my life," Wanting to know if I was listening, he asked bitterly, "Didn't they cane you, too?"
     "The prefects?" The prefects were older schoolboys with disciplinary privileges at sixteen.
     "Yes," Foster said.
     "One of them tried it once." I told him.
     "What happened?"
     "I half killed him."
     The wind whipped at the covers of the lifeboats across the rail. "So bloody self-confident," he said through his teeth, "the English."
     "So you thought you'd get your own back."
     "By crossing over."
     "It doesn't take a great deal of figuring out, does it?"
     His hands were blue, I noticed, though the wind was no more than cool. His face — once bland, once carefully innocent of expression as he trod his way along the corridors of treachery — looked almost shriveled now, like the mask of Dorian Gray beginning to slip. From the English, who'd used him for sport, he'd gone to the Soviets, who’d drained his clandestine talents and thrown him onto the scrap-heap with the Order of Lenin as a sop to his vanity.
     "Perhaps you should have kicked a few people, Foster, on your way through life. It makes them back off, you know."
     He was silent, considering this. "Is it as simple as that?"
     "It's a law of nature."
     "I see." He was looking down now, at his wrinkled, bloodless hands, and I knew we'd reached the point of no-return. He was going tell me now why he was here, on board the Queen Elizabeth, pride of the oceans. And I thought I already knew. "It's also a law of nature, I suppose, to want revenge. Revenge on England, and of course on you."
     I gave a shrug. "Sorry about that, Foster. But if you hadn't shown up at that particular checkpoint, I couldn't have blown your cover."
     He moved in his chair again, jerking himself more upright. "You could have let me get away." His voice was bright with rage. "You'd finished your mission, damn you. There was nothing I could have done to stop that."
     "Oh, come on, Foster, a spy's a spy. Life's real out there. You'd have done the same thing to me."
     "Yes," he said, "I would have. But somehow —" his eyes were narrowed to bare slits now as he faced me — "somehow you'd have brazened it out, and got away with it. You wouldn't have been so —" he had to look for the right word again. Then he found it, and put all his hate into it, all his rage, and all his despair — "so humiliated."
     "Question of attitude, I suppose." I decided to bite the bullet. "So that's why you're on board the Queen. To avenge the past. Rather romantic."
     "To avenge myself on you, yes. And on England."
     "She won't miss me that much, Foster, but thanks for the compliment." He said nothing. "Did you see my name on the passenger list?"
     "I happened to be in Murmansk. I was giving a talk to the KGB contingent there. One of them told me you were on the Queen, and between missions."
     "So you didn't waste any time."
     "I've had a new set of British papers, of course, for a long time. I told them I was stranded in Russia, my wallet cleaned out in a nightclub. You know the story. I said I could pay my way home with a credit card."
     "Good old American Express."
     "They were very accommodating. A good English accent will get you anywhere. Ask Philby." He added casually, "I'm in stateroom 58, on 'A’ Deck."
     "Just three along from mine."
     "That's right."
     "I'll be sure to lock the door," I said, "when I turn in tonight." I was watching him carefully now; both his hands were in sight on the plaid rug, but they could reach a gun easily enough if I gave him time. I wasn't going to do that.
     "Don't worry," he said. "You won't go alone. We're taking England with us."
     A flash of understanding hit my nerves. England, too... in the shape of the Queen Elizabeth, pride of the oceans, and so forth.
     Mother of God.
     The sea wind fretted at the lifeboat covers as I sat there beside him, two passengers taking the air on deck before going below for tea. But time had stopped, and I went through a couple of dozen ways out, and didn't find any that worked.
     "How big is it, Foster?"
     "Not very big. About the size of a hair-dryer. But very powerful."
     "You mean a small tactical nuke?"
     "Yes. A hundred tons equivalent."
     "I see." I'd stopped watching his hands. All I could see now was eternity.
     "She won't take long to go down," he said, and the calm had come back to his voice. He wasn't embittered any more; he wasn't humiliated. He’d got us in his hands, now, and at last he was top dog, for the first time in his life.
     "She won't really go down," I said. "With a tactical nuke, you're going to blow her right out of the water."
     "Pretty close."
     The Queen. A thousand feet long; thirteen stories high; and with nine hundred people on board.
     My body was numb. The organism had gone to ground, running for cover from this thing it couldn't hope to stop.
     He means it.
     I know.
     We're all going to die.
     There's nothing we can do about it.
     No. Nothing.
     In a moment I said: "All right, Foster. How do I talk you out of it'? What's the deal?"
     He seemed genuinely surprised. "There's no deal. It's timed to detonate in three hours from now." He looked at his wrist watch. "At six o'clock."
     Three hours.
     I went through the options again, and drew a blank. I knew him, and I knew his kind; it was my kind. I know when people like me are bluffing, and when they mean what they say.
     Foster meant what he said.
     I got up. "Then I'd better tell the skipper to start a search operation."
     "Of course." He squinted up at me against the light. "We must go through the motions."
     "Don't worry. We'll find it."
     His face was working, as if he were trying to laugh but couldn't quite remember, after all this time, after all these years of seething rage, how to do it. "Do you really think, Quiller, that you have a single chance in hell of finding it?"
     "Of course." But I was lying, and he knew it. This man was a pro.
     "All right. And when you've found it, do you really think you stand a chance in hell of disarming it? It was assembled by specialists: by the elite Red Army nuclear lab itself. It's an all-contingencies untouchable, Quiller, with computerized trigger responses to any tool that goes near it. Even they couldn't disarm this one. So if you find it, I wouldn't go too close."
     I thought of several things to say, but none of them would do any good, so I said nothing, and left him sitting under his plaid rug with that ghastly rictus on his face that was meant to be laughter.

"It’s a hoax, of course."
     "How can you be sure?"
     "I know him."
     Captain Horton went on watching me for a moment, his hands by his sides, the four gold rings on his sleeves catching the light from the portholes.
     "Can you tell me something more, Mr. Gage?"
     "Yes." I'd spoken to Horton a few times when he'd asked me to dine at the captain's table; all he knew about me was that I was a civil servant of some sort. "Nicholas Foster, alias Nikolai Voss, was a double agent for the Soviets for fifteen years before he —"
     "Oh that's the man!"
     "There was a lot of publicity, yes, when we put him away."
     His eyes had lost their disciplined calm. "And you say you know him?"
     "I've known him since we were at school together. The most I can tell you about myself is that I'm In British Intelligence with colonel's ranking and immediate access to the Prime Minister through my bureau. That might help us."
     I told him what I thought we should do, and within fifteen minutes the ship’s public-address system had ordered a "routine" fire drill for five-thirty and two of Horton's security guards had taken Foster along to the brig for questioning, and a radio call had gone direct to the Special Air Service with duplications to the Minister of Defense and Downing Street, requesting the urgent dispatch of bomb-disposal teams by helicopter to our calculated position in twenty minutes' time the time it would take for the ship to slow and heave-to. If boats had to be lowered, she'd need to be dead in the water.
     By this time I was on the radio to the Bureau, and in London my message was coming out of the voice-scrambler in the signals room.
     I think there's a bare chance we could appeal to his self esteem. It's suffered badly, and even a small gesture might pull him out of this crisis. Tell the PM that if she can talk to the Kremlin on the hotline and ask them to radio Voss personally that they've decided to award him the Hero of the Soviet Union, he might change his mind.
     The signal came back in two words.
     Will do.
     The time was now 16.05 hours. We had less than two hours before the deadline.
     During the next hour, Captain Horton and two of his officers talked to Foster in the small, barred security brig. When he came to find me in the radio room, he looked like a man who’d received a sentence of death. I suppose he had. We all had.
     "He seems perfectly sane."
     "Everything in life is relative. You didn't get anywhere?"
     "No. He's implacable."
     "Then I should let him free."
     "As you've seen, he's outwardly rational. He's not going to harm anyone personally, until that thing blows. And he might not be able to resist going to have a look at it, to make sure it's still there, wherever he's hidden it. Then we could move in."
     He folded his arms, a thick-bodied, graying man with a firm mouth and eyes that had looked into the hurricane and kept safe his ship, more times, perhaps, than he could remember. But this was different: we were now having to deal with the infinitely subtle complexities of a deranged mind.
     "All right," he said after a moment. "We'll set him free."
     "It's one of the few chances we've got. Those bomb-disposal teams can't reach our position before the deadline at 1600 hours, and even if they could, there'd be no hope of searching a ship this size and finding anything. I also believe Foster: it's a highly-sophisticated device, and untouchable. All we've got to work with is Foster himself, and I suggest you put some of your officers into plain clothes and mount continuous surveillance on him. See where he goes; watch what he does."
     He picked up a telephone and gave the orders.
     Ten minutes later, I was called to the radio room. It was a signal from London, and I decoded it.
     Moscow says no.

I went to see Captain Horton.
     "There's one chance left."
     "One more?" Hope came into his eyes. "I thought we'd run out."
     "I'm going to grill him."
     "But we did that. He refused to — "
     "I'm going to do it alone," I said, "behind a locked door."
     "But if we couldn't make him talk —" then he stopped, as understanding came.
     "What happens to him is my responsibility." My mouth was becoming dry, and there was anger mounting in me, anger with Foster for making it come to this, for making me do this, finally. I'd only done it twice before in my life and it had worked, and we'd gotten Wilson back safe from the Romanian frontier and we'd reached Bennett in time, but I still had dreams, sometimes, and wakened feeling like this; because there's something horribly personal in breaking a man who won't talk otherwise.
     "Very well," Horton said, and we went aft to the cocktail bar on the Promenade Deck. I knew Foster was there: Horton's security officer had kept me informed of his every movement since we'd decided to have him surveilled. He'd gone there half an hour ago, and ordered caviar and champagne — the eat. drink-and-be-merry trip, a last glimpse of the good life before the bang.
     He was sitting in the corner, and there was still a half glass of Veuve Cliquot on the table in front of him, but the dish of caviar had made a mess on the floor because, I suppose, he'd knocked it off the table when the capsule had broken in his mouth and left him slumped in the chair like this, with his face cyanosed and his eyes staring up at me as I reached him.
     I'd been wrong. It wasn't the eat-drink-and-be-merry trip: he'd known me and the way I worked, and he'd known that I'd go for him sooner or later and make him talk — because there aren't many people who won't, finally, if you take things far enough.
     I looked at the Captain. "No go," I said. "That was our last chance."

At 1730 hours, the passengers began assembling at their emergency stations, and I went below to the medical room as a special message began coming over the PA system.

This is Captain Horton speaking. Please listen carefully. I have been informed that an explosive device has been assembled on board this vessel. It is timed to go off at 1800 hours, in half an hour from now. Some of you may remember the hoax that was perpetrated a few years ago, in mid-Atlantic. I believe this is another hoax, but of course we are taking no chances. Bomb disposal teams are on their way here now, and members of my crew are making a thorough search of the ship, in this way, the passengers can help us. Anyone noticing a strange object, or any disturbance in the normal appearance of their cabin, should telephone the special hotline number 9000 immediately. In the meantime, the most valuable assistance you can give the crew of this ship and myself is simply to keep calm. I shall report personally to you the moment there is any change in the situation.

I was in the ship’s hospital when I heard the message. We'd brought Foster down there, because we couldn't just leave him in the cocktail lounge. This ship was going to be blown to Kingdom Come in another half-hour and it would have to look tidy.
     Beulah was there, and helped us lay the body out in the little cabin that was used as a morgue.
     "Was it cyanide?" she asked me. The dead man's skin was blue.
     "Why did he do it?" Her eyes were wide, but otherwise she had the calm of a trained professional. "Was it grief?"
     "Was it what?"
     "He knew Mr. Kirkendoll," she said.
     "Oh, really?" The CIA connection. So I wasn't the only spook in the opposition he’d wanted to wipe out. What had Kirkendoll done to him? Blown his cover somewhere, as I had? Got him into disgrace in Moscow? He'd told me: "Those bastards crucified me over there,"
     But why kill Kirkendoll, faking a heart attack, when he was going to get blown out of the ocean with tire rest of us? Had it been something personal? The sweetness of intimate revenge?
     I asked Beulah: "What makes you say he knew Kirkendoll?"
     "He came down here early this morning, as soon as he'd heard the news. He was quite upset, and asked if he could pay his last respects."

And may the waves receive Irvin Hudson Kirkendoll into the kindly bosom of the sea, so that his soul may rest there in everlasting peace.
     Captain Horton gave a nod to the four sailors who had been assigned as pallbearers. The time was ten minutes before 1800 hours. They lowered the simple wooden coffin in a platform sling, dropping it from the davits to the surface of the sea. Ten minutes before, the captain had ordered full-ahead-both to the engine room, and the Queen Elizabeth was slipping through the waves at a rising fifteen knots.
     Captain Horton moved to the rail, and l joined him there. The four sailors were releasing the ropes, and in a moment the coffin splashed gently into the waves. The sun was lowering now, toward where England lay beyond the horizon. As the foam spread out from where the coffin had gone down, I heard the sound of military helicopters; they were coming in low from the west. I glanced at Horton, but he reassured me with his eyes: he'd already ordered a signal to them to stay clear of the ship. In a moment they lifted slightly and swung south, ahead of us.

I looked at my watch. It needed fifteen seconds to six o’clock.
     We'd run it close, and I'd been sharply reminded of a rule I'd tried to stick to through every one of my missions.
     Never assume anything.
     Assumptions were dangerous. I'd connected Kirkendoll's name with the man I'd known in the CIA, years before; but he wasn't the same. I'd checked the passenger list, the moment Beulah had told me that Foster had asked to pay his last respects at the open coffin. This Kirkendoll had been a computer software manufacturer, with U.S. government contacts.
     There had been no CIA connection.
     The only connection there'd been between Kirkendoll and Foster was the coffin: and Foster's access to it.

I looked at my watch again, and then aft, beyond the stern of the ship. For a few seconds there was just the indigo expanse of the sea, chipped with whitecaps: then a mile distant the water heaved, its mass boiling and lifting from the surface in a huge waterspout that caught the blood-red light of the sunset as it reached toward the sky.
     I moved closer to Horton as instinctively he crossed himself. "Can we stay clear of that cloud, skipper?"
     "Oh, yes. It's to leeward, and we're reaching thirty knots."
     The tension went out of me at last. "Godspeed," I said.

  The April 1986 issue of Espionage Magazine

Last modified: Monday, September 02, 2002

"Last Rites" and the accompanying image were originally published in the April 1986 issue of Espionage Magazine [Volume 2, Issue 1].
"Last Rites" illustration by Aries.