.“That’s the man!”
“And … ?”
“Keith O’Brien, special reporter for the London Chronicle. These last couple of years he’s published a lot of influential reports in the international press. He’s been awarded three of the most important prizes in European journalism.”
“And why him?”
“He is objective and professional. His work is on the technical side and this interests us.”
“What’s he like?”
” He is 42 years old, six-foot two, well-built. He has black hair, greying at the temples, grey eyes. He is slim, bony and a little muscular.”
“And where does this guy live?”
“Hampstead, 14 Willoughby Road.”
“Is he married?”
“Divorced. He has two children who live with their mother in St. John’s Wood.”
“He lives alone, but he is still active. He is sometimes seen with an escort. He occasionally goes to nightclubs and third-rate Soho bars. But basically he’s the serious type.”
“He likes spirits, vodka, whisky. He’s a moderate smoker. He takes drugs, mostly cocaine, but he’s not an addict. Sometimes buys the stuff from a dealer near Charing Cross Road.”
“And his medical file, do you have it ?”
“He has allergic rhinitis and he sometimes suffers from constipation. Besides that, there’s nothing else that could discredit him. This guy’s as strong as an ox.”
“He has various hobbies. He likes sports, specially cricket, fine arts and music. He collects jazz records and art books. Whenever he can, he goes for a walk. He uses his car only at the weekends.”
“This is bullshit. Let’s get to the point …”
“Psychologically, he’s difficult to pin down. He swings between his daily routine and the risks he takes to get those front-line stories. During the American bombardment of Libya, he went to Tripoli and interviewed Colonel Khadafi. For some reason, O’Brien sometimes becomes extremely audacious. We don’t know why, but something like a compulsion, something almost pathological, makes him take off to trouble spots. The guy loves being involved in tricky situations.”
“There are a few details to complete the picture…”
“Cool it, take it easy. You will get the details later.”
The phosphorescent green of the computer terminal was angled so that the men could see Keith O’Brien’s file. Each received an envelope with photographs.
The winter was fierce. It was snowing. A white blanket was visible through the blinds, from the garden to the distant street. An enormous iron railing protected the bureau.
Of the four men, three were gathered around the terminal that was installed on the dark brown surface of a long wide desk. The fourth man was breathing on the window, misting it. He drew letters on the glass with his finger. He glanced around the room.
To the left of the desk, there was a huge door made of carved and darkened wood. A grotesque golden knob, carved in the shape of a snake, its eyes incrusted with green stones caught one’s attention. The walls were hidden behind the dark brown bookcases. On one of them, panelled with wood, hung official photographs. On the other, there was an oil painting of a sea-scape with two sailing-boats.
The committee table was on the right; on the left, the director’s desk. There there were picture-frames, piles of paper and some bound.
The man who was near the window came over to the others.
“Are you really sure that this is the man that we are looking for?” he asked, turning to his right.
The director, a fat, bulky man, was about to light a cigar. His thick yellow fingers struck a match. While raising his hand to his face, his dull eyes, prematurely wrinkled, looked up. Puffing out his red cheeks, he smiled, revealing his small teeth.
“Of course he is. We mustn’t fail. Any drawback and everything will be ruined.”
The four men exchanged glances. A flaccid hand, extremely thin and white, pressed a button on the computer keyboard. A list of files appeared.
“Wouldn’t this person here be preferable ?” he asked.
“We thought about him, but now he’s out of question.”
“I know what you mean. One of our best men is following him.”
Everybody smiled discreetly. The director’s olive-grey eyes shone. With his forefinger, he loosened his tie. He sat down and opened a drawer. He shuffled through its contents until he found three folders which he set on the table. The other men approached, curious. After satisfying himself that this was what he wanted to do, he passed one of them to each of the men in the room.
“Gentlemen, the operation starts now. I want absolute secrecy. Each of you has a folder with the necessary instructions and none of you should know what the other is doing. Needless to say, you will be watched by the enemy and by ourselves. You must be discreet. You have money and contacts. Any problem or change in the instructions will be passed on immediately. If the operation fails, you will know what to do. Now read the documents.”
The men picked up their folders. Two sat down at the committee table; the other preferred a comfortable sofa set against the wall. The director re-lit his cigar.
The painting was almost entirely a sort of green stain. Many shades of this colour, overlaid with heavy brush-strokes, formed a gradation that went from the darkest colour in the lower part to the lightest in the upper part of the painting. In this way, the planes were apparently confused, but the impression was that the first plane seemed to continue through something like a window, showing mountains in the distance. Some white touches, in rectangular and triangular shapes, seemed to suggest a city in the top left corner. Beyond that, an olive-green portion: the mountains. In the lower right corner, the dark green from the underlying planes gave the impression of something tense, inexplicable. Next to this blur, a tricycle and a plant gave a sense of familiarity to the scene. Finally, some red brush-strokes in the middle of the painting, a little to the left, formed something between a fence and a bonfire.
Linking the white and the red, in minimal strokes, dissolved in green, the painter transmitted a strange feeling of lightness. At the same time, details like a cleft along the scene’s centre of gravity or the tricycle’s immobility sent the close observer into a state of primitivism and even trance.
January, l7th. Sunday afternoon was almost over. The first hours of a London evening. After a rainy and foggy Saturday, the weather had improved. The air was clear and limpid. It was cold. There was a small traffic jam in Hampstead High Street.
“I don’t know if I can include this painting in your group of private works”, said Keith, looking at the painting in front of him.”Don’t you think that the figurative elements should be stressed more ?” His friend Elliot was also looking at the painting. His motionless eyes gave nothing away. They seemed to be concentrating on a fixed point. Elliot was far away.
Keith finished speaking and walked over to the balcony. He glanced at the houses and the lawns around him. He admired Hampstead’s roofs. Everything was pallid and gray. He wished it could have been spring. He came back to the living-room, closing the glass door behind him and went to the drinks cabinet.
“Would you like a drink?”, asked Elliot.
“Gin”, he answered.
Elliot opened the drink cabinet and poured a measure of Gilbey’s into a glass.
“A thousand pounds for your thoughts”, he said to Keith.
“How’s that ?”
“Holidays, a nice beach. Charming dancers with flowers round their necks and a comfortable hotel room. Good company, peace and sun. How does that grab you?”
“It’d be a great idea. You ever been there?”
“When are you going to take a holiday?”
“I don’t know.”
They listened to music and remembered the good old days. Pleading an appointment, Elliot left before dinner. Keith stayed in the living-room. He flicked through the record shelf till he found an old song by Jimmy Giuffre. He listened to”The song is you.”
He drank some more gin and thumbed through some magazines. It didn’t take too long and he became bored, tossing them aside.
The telephone rang.
“It’s Ralph. How’re things ?”
“How about a chat this evening ?”
“OK. What time?”
“Say, an hour and a half from now.”
Keith warmed up a lasagne, ate, dressed and went out.
Keith’s Jaguar passed the corner of Arkwright road. He braked and looked at the blocked street. Two groups of adolescents, one on each side, were holding up the traffic with their banners. Keith tried to read what was written on them, but gave up. The youths were making too much noise and he became irritated. A girl approached: “Hi! We are here to support a campaign for the Animal Protection Society. I don’t know if you know about the atrocities that the rats suffer in the laboratories…” she said, unable to repress a childish smile and glances at her friends.
Keith didn’t attempt a reaction. To himself, he resented the youths’ lack of ceremony. He turned away and turned up the radio. The girl was still trying to say something. Keith, making sure that there was nobody in front of the car, pulled away, the tires squealing. He heard, from a distance, something offensive, the last part of a common phrase. He laughed, leaned back and turned the radio down.
The road to the Knight’s was calm and dull. On Sunday night, there was little going on in Park Road and Baker Street. Just the frosty breeze of winter and a succession of houses and shops, the occasional bright red double decker bus. Keith wondered what Ralph wanted to talk to him about.
The Knight’s Bridge is a quiet London pub near the city centre, in the basement of an old-fashioned arcade. During the week, the place was full of yuppies; on Sundays journalists and intellectuals. The Knight’s has a refined and gloomy atmosphere. In the dim light tables and chairs covered with violet velvet were almost always occupied. People drank spirits or pints of bitter. The conversation was mixed. Attentive ears could pick up allusions to international politics, discussions on the situation of European contemporary art and even high-society gossip, the names of famous people. The Knight’s murmur was cultivated by its customers. It was rare, if not impossible, either to hear a laugh, or a sentence spoken loudly.
It was not difficult for Keith to find Ralph. The boss was reading a magazine at his favourite table near a small side window at the rear of the pub. When Keith came in, Ralph glanced around the large room. He smiled and waved discreetly.
Ralph S. Foster, 66 years old, was of Scottish descent. He was a strong, tall man. His white hair combed backwards revealed his wrinkled forehead. He was a highly professional journalist, known for his dedication and maturity. He had started at the London Chronicle as a reporter, but by dint of hard work, he had risen to be the English daily’s editor-in-chief.
Keith owed him his own career. Ralph believed in his talent, helping him with his first exclusive. Because of this and other reasons, accumulated during the years of shared experiences, there was more than friendship between them: there was almost a pact of mutual help and great admiration. However, a certain paternalism from his boss towards Keith made their friendship rather difficult. It made itself felt through a convoluted game of mockeries and hidden aggressions.
Amongst journalists, Ralph had a reputation for being a little biased in his analyses of international politics, mainly because of his contempt for the U.S.A. Keith, on the other hand, rarely revealed his opinion about the countries or politicians involved in his reports. He preferred the style and the rawness of well-documented facts.
“What are you reading?”
“Take a seat. What a tactless guy! You’ve just arrived and you are already prying into my business …”
“I only asked to get you talking.”
“Well, you needn’t be so polite. What do want to drink?”
“Half a pint.”
“You drinking beer these days ?”
“You can’t drink scotch after gin”.
“I see. You’ve already started. After all, what else could make a guy like you drink beer ? I’ll get you one.”
“I’ll get it”, answered Keith.
“Look old chap, let Ralph pamper you a bit. After all, these are your last days in London.”
“What?” Keith was surprised.
It was too late. His friend had already stood up and gone to the bar. Keith sat down and picked up the magazine that Ralph had been reading: Newsweek.
His boss was soon back with the drinks in his hands: a foaming pint in the left hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. He put everything on the table and sat down.
“Ralph, I can’t believe my eyes! Are you reading American magazines ?”
Ralph pretended he didn’t understand. Then he grabbed the magazine and started thumbing through it, looking serious.
“Do you know that Newsweek says that Thatcher can divorce that jerk ?”, he said.
Keith sipped his bitter.
“That’s good!” he said, looking at Ralph.” Have you talked to the Director ?”
“How did you know that?”
“Well, it seems obvious. So?”
“Everything’s fine. He agrees with your project. You know, Keith, that he never refuses what we ask him. Now that we have his approval, you can’t waste any more time. The situation is getting worse there every day.”
“Everything’s ready. I’ll be travelling in two weeks from now at the latest. Have you been in touch with Barry?”
“Of course, dear boy. What wouldn’t I do for you? And another thing: go to the Research Department tomorrow.
They’ve put together a dossier with all the information that you will need. I almost brought it with me, but as I know that you’re the kind of chap who likes to do things your own way… Go and see if you can find something that might interest you. Barry telephoned warning that things are hotting up down there. Have you read his reports?”
“And what’s your opinion?”
“Insipid, but some of them are interesting.”
“It is not easy to get information about a country that’s at war.”
Keith didn’t reply, but sipped his beer and looked down.
Ralph shook him.
“And the Spanish? Did the classes with Mrs. Gonzales have any effect or you are going with your holiday Spanish made in Majorca?”
“Newsweek is reporting a worsening situation in El Salvador. After ARENA’s victory in the last elections, anything can happen. The Yanks will have problems because of their intransigence in Central America. You know I’m not a communist, but a democratic solution for those countries will invariably be an anti-American one,” said Ralph. “And what’s that got to do with me ?” asked Keith ironically.
“Well, you’re going to do a report on El Salvador. You should know all about the situation there.”
“Ralph, knowing all about the situation there is one thing. Taking sides is completely different.”
Ralph became serious.
“The two things are the same”, he answered.
“I know”, replied Keith.
Ralph drank his whisky.
“Well, let’s talk about your holiday trip to Central America.” Keith moved closer to him, rubbing his hands.
“Now, this is the old Ralph I know. Do you think I’m going to wind up in a Salvadorean hospital ? They say that the sun there knocks out an Englishman.”
“Well”, said Ralph,”use a good sunblock. Keith, listen to me, this is a serious matter, your mission is very important. Those poor people need European public opinion. This is the only way to control, a little, the violence that’s expected now with the total war between the Government and the guerrillas. I know that you won’t let us down.”
Keith listened to everything carefully. He didn’t reply. He pretended to agree with what was being said. Far from boring or interesting him, Ralph’s opinion was part of his routine. The more his boss talked that way, the more he knew how it would end up.
“Keith, a man has responsibilites beyond his professional work.”
“Ok, Ok,” said Keith, with a gesture of applause.
“All right, let’s forget about it. To you, my friend, and to your mission. Cheers!”
A small flat in the suburbs of Milan. Three men together in a meeting.
“This is my first and last meeting with you. My code-name is Gabriel. I have a little information to give you and a lot of instructions. Some demands… and… take it easy … a lot of money too. Can we get to work ?”
The other two nodded.
“OK. You, Yuri, have you found the men we need yet ?”
Yuri, one of the KGB’s most important agents in Europe, was a serious man who hardly spoke. Short, thin, with black hair and a little beard, he was well known in counter-espionage for his good contacts with terrorist groups working in Europe. He was the connection between the Soviet authorities, secret revolutionary movements and guerrillas in various parts of the world. A faithful executor of orders, he would surmount any obstacle to reach his targets. He had been working on a risky operation for some months.
“Everything’s ready. The crew of the ship is reliable. I’ve got thirty two men. Some are idealists, others are in it for the money.”
“And these people will keep their mouths shut ?”
“I’ve already told you they’re reliable. Anyway, they won’t know anything till the operation’s over. They’re spread all over Europe. Most of them speak different languages. They’ll come together when we call them.”
“And the problem of unloading arms in Central America?”
“Everything is checked out. Alonso will take care of the details.”
Alonso, a thirty-seven-year old Spaniard, bearded, white-skinned and of average build, was one of the most wanted men in his country. For some time, he led the People’s Army, one of the most violent factions of European terrorism.
“It is OK, Gabriel. You can trust him. I’ve known him for a long time.”
“In our profession, trust is a word that doesn’t mean anything. We’ve already checked out his story and he’s OK. I’m sorry”, he said, turning to the Spaniard,”it is a question of security.”
“That’s enough of this bullshit. And the ship ?” asked Yuri.
“A ship under an Algerian flag is waiting for you, moored in Tunis. It is ready to sail. You’ll only need to finish the loading and leave.”
“And the name-code of this operation, Alonso? Choose one, you’re a Latin American.”
“Now ? Just like that ?”
“Let me see… What do you think of Cayman? Yes, Cayman, a small crocodile. That sounds good to me. The name reminds me of Central America, a song. What about Cayman Operation?”
“OK, OK. From now on you, apart from a very small group of people, are the only ones who will get any information. Anything that gets out will have come from you, and there is no need to remind what will happen then, is there?”
Yuri and Alonso stood next to Gabriel.
“Well, I can tell you what will be transported and how you will unload the cargo.”
“We are curious to know.”
“You shouldn’t be. Anyone who knows more than necessary in our profession generally gets into trouble. You will deliver arms to Central America. We are sending American, Czech and German arms to the guerrilla war.” “And where do we unload them ?”
“You’ll take with you a coded letter with instructions. The passwords to decipher it will be sent by radio when you get near the coast. Alonso will be ashore arranging the unloading. I want you, Yuri, to be on the ship, leading the operation personally. You will take with you not only the conventional weapons, but also two containers with a highly secret cargo that will be guarded round-the-clock by some of our men. You and they will have access to a device that will detonate the cargo in case of danger. If the operation fails, don’t hesitate to do it.”
Yuri interrupted, wanting to know more about the content of the boxes.
“Not even I know”, said Gabriel.”I only know that it is something that is going to change definitively the balance of power in El Salvador, right ? Afterwards, Yuri, you’ll be able to go away and live like a king.”
“That part I like …”
“You can take this money now” said Gabriel, giving him the receipt of a numbered Swiss bank account.”After the operation, you’ll get five times more”, he added.
Yuri opened his eyes wide, disguising immediately his greed with a smile and a satisfied look at Alonso. Gabriel gave him another receipt.
“This money is for you to complete our shopping. I want you to buy some more machine-guns, good ones, OK ? Czech or even British. Do you know anyone that could arrange that for us ?”
“Of course, with this money.”
“Without raising any suspicions?”
“Don’t worry. But is all this for the guns ?”
“No. It includes the dollars you asked me for your mercenaries.”
“Right.”, said Yuri.”Where are the guys who will take care of the containers ?” he asked.
“They’ll find you. The containers, too. Don’t anticipate too much. Worry only about your men and don’t hesitate to eliminate any suspect. This operation must be successful. Any hesitation and we’re fucked.”
“Don’t worry. Even the slightest suspects are being watched”, said Yuri, slapping Alonso on the back.
“Luckily they are only a few”, said Gabriel.”I don’t trust idealists.”
“What’re you trying to say ?” asked Alonso.
“You’re worse than mercenaries, you have compassion. And you also shoot badly, very badly.”
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Chapter 5 (click to continue)