"The dead man was not a dead man. He was alive but he was not alive. That was the situation."
Calvin Somers, the nurse, stopped at the edge of the towpath and looked behind him, back along the canal. He was a slight man, as stubborn and petulant as a child. Gaddis came to a halt beside him.
"Keep talking," he said.
"It was the winter of 1992, an ordinary Monday night in February." Somers took an apple from his coat pocket and bit into it, chewing over the memories. "The patient's name was Edward Crane. It said he was seventy-six on his notes, but none of us knew what was true and what wasn't. He looked midsixties to me." They started walking again, black boots pressing through the mud. "They'd obviously worked out it was best if they admitted him at night, when there were fewer people around, when the day staff had gone off shift."
"Who's 'they'?" Gaddis asked.
"The spooks." A mallard lifted off the canal, quick wings shedding water as he turned towards the sun. "Crane was brought in on a stretcher, unconscious, just after ten on the evening of the third. I was ready for him. I'm always ready. He bypassed A and E and was put straight into a private room off the ward. The chart said he had no next of kin and wasn't to be resuscitated in the event of cardiac arrest. Nothing unusual about that. Far as anyone was concerned, this was just another old man suffering from late-stage pancreatic cancer. Hours to live, liver failure, toxic. At least, that was the story MI6 was paying us to pedal."
Somers threw the half-eaten apple at a plastic bottle floating on the canal and missed by three feet.
"Soon as I got Crane into the room, I hooked him up to some drips. Dextrose saline. A bag of amikacin that was just fluid going nowhere. Even gave him a catheter. Everything had to look kosher just in case a member of staff stuck their head round the door who wasn't supposed to."
"Did that happen? Did anybody see Crane?"
Somers scratched the side of his neck. "Nah. At about two in the morning, Meisner called for a priest. That was all part of the plan. Father Brook. He didn't suspect a thing. Just came in, administered the last rites, went home. Soon after that, Henderson showed up and did his little speech."
"What little speech?"
Somers came to a halt. He didn't make eye contact very often but did so now, assuming a patrician tone which Gaddis took to be an attempt at impersonating Henderson's cut-glass accent.
"'From this point onwards, Edward Crane is effectively dead. I would like to thank you all for your work thus far, but a great deal remains to be done.'"
A man pushing a rusty bicycle came towards them on the towpath, ticking past in the dusk.
"We were all there," said Somers. "Waldemar, Meisner, Forman. Meisner was so nervous he looked as if he was going to throw up. Waldemar didn't speak much English and still didn't really understand what he'd got himself involved in. He was probably just thinking about the money. That's what I was doing. Twenty grand in 1992 was a lot of cash to a twenty-eight-year-old nurse. You any idea what we got paid under the Tories?"
Gaddis didn't respond. He didn't want to have a conversation about underfunded nurses. He wanted to hear the end of the story.
"Anyway, at some point Henderson took a checklist out of his coat pocket and ran through it. First, he turned to Meisner and asked him if he'd filled out the death certificate. Meisner said he had and produced a ballpoint pen from behind his ear, as if that proved it. I was told to go back down to Crane's room and wrap the body. 'No need to clean him,' Henderson said. For some reason, Waldemar --- we called him Wally --- thought this was funny and we all just stood there watching him laugh. Then Henderson tells him to pull himself together and gives him instructions to have a trolley waiting, to take the old man down to the ambulance. I remember Henderson didn't talk to Forman until the rest of us had gone. Don't ask me what he'd agreed with her. Probably to tag a random corpse in the mortuary, some tramp from Praed Street with no ID, no history. How else could they have got away with it? They needed a second body."
"This is useful," Gaddis told him, because he felt that he needed to say something. "This is really useful."
"Well, you get what you pay for, don't you, Professor?" Somers produced a smug grin. "What was hard is that we had other patients to attend to. It was a normal Monday night. It wasn't as if everything could just grind to a halt because MI6 were in the building. Meisner was the senior doctor, too, so he was always moving back and forth around the hospital. At one point I don't think I saw him for about an hour and a half. Wally had jobs all over the place, me as well. Added to that, I had to try to keep the other nurses out of Crane's room. Just in case they got nosey." The path narrowed beside a barge and the two men were obliged to walk in single file. "In the end, everything went like clockwork. Meisner got the certificate done, Crane was wrapped up with a small hole in the fabric he could breathe through, Wally took him down to the ambulance, and the old man was gone by six A.M., out into his new life."
"His new life," Gaddis muttered. He looked up at the darkening sky and wondered, not for the first time, if he would ever set eyes on Edward Anthony Crane. "And that's it?"
"Almost." Somers wiped his nose in the failing light. "Eight days later I was going through The Times. Found an obituary for an 'Edward Crane.' Wasn't very long. Tucked down the right-hand side of the page under 'Lives Remembered,' next to some French politician who'd fucked up during Suez. Crane was described as a 'resourceful career diplomat.' Born in 1916, educated at Marlborough College, then Trinity, Cambridge. Postings to Moscow, Buenos Aires, Berlin. Never married, no offspring. Died at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, after 'a long battle with cancer.'"
A light drizzle was beginning to fall. Gaddis passed a set of lock gates and moved in the direction of a pub. Somers pushed a hand through his hair.
"So that's what happened, Professor," he said. "Edward Crane was a dead man, but he was not a dead man. Edward Crane was alive but he was not alive. That was the situation."
* * *
The pub was packed.
Gaddis went to the bar and ordered two pints of Stella Artois, a packet of peanuts, and a double of Famous Grouse. Thanks to Somers, he was down to the loose change in his pockets and had to pay the barman with a debit card. Inside his jacket he found the torn scrap of paper on which he kept his passwords and PIN numbers and punched in the digits while the landlord made a noise through his teeth. With Somers still in the Gents', Gaddis sank the whisky as a single shot, then found a table at the back of the pub where he could watch groups of shivering smokers huddled outside and try to convince himself that he had made the right decision to quit.
"Got you a Stella," he said when Somers came up to the table. For an instant it looked as though he wasn't going to sit down, but Gaddis pushed the pint towards him and said: "Peanuts."
It was just past six o'clock. West Hyde on a Tuesday night. Suits, secretaries, suburbia. A jukebox was crooning Andy Williams. Tacked up beside a dartboard in the far corner of the room was an orange poster emblazoned with the words: CURRY NIGHT --- WEDNESDAY. Gaddis took off his corduroy jacket and looped it over the arm of a neighbouring chair.
"So what happened next?"
He knew that this was the part Somers liked, playing the pivotal role, playing Deep Throat. The nurse --- the senior nurse, as he would doubtless have insisted --- produced another of his smug grins and took a thirsty pull on the pint. Something about the warmth of the pub had restored his characteristic complacency; it was as if Somers had reprimanded himself for being too open beside the canal. After all, he was in possession of information that Gaddis wanted. The professor had paid three grand for it. It was gold dust to him.
"What happened next?"
"That's right, Calvin. Next."
Somers leaned back in his chair. "Not much." He seemed to regret this answer and rephrased it, searching for more impact. "I watched the ambulance turn past the post office, had a quick smoke, and went back inside. Took the lift up to Crane's room, cleared it out, threw away the bags and catheter, and sent the medical notes down to Patient Records. You could probably check them if you want. Far as the hospital was concerned, a seventy-six-year-old cancer patient had come in suffering from liver failure and died during the night. The sort of thing that happened all the time. It was a new day, a new shift. Time to move on."
"What about him?"
"You never heard another word?"
Somers looked as if he had been asked an idiotic question. That was the trouble with intellectuals. So fucking stupid.
"Why would I hear another word?" He took a long draw on the pint and did something with his eyes which made Gaddis want to deck him. "Presumably he was given a new identity. Presumably he enjoyed another ten years of happy life and died peacefully in his bed. Who knows?"
Two smokers, one coming in, one going out, pushed past their table. Gaddis was obliged to move a leg out of the way.
"And you never breathed a word about it? Nobody asked you any questions? Nobody apart from Charlotte has brought up this subject for over ten years?"
"You could say that, yeah."
Gaddis sensed a lie here, but knew there was no point pursuing it. Somers was the type who shut down once you caught him in a contradiction. He said: "And did Crane talk? What kind of man was he? What did he look like?"
Somers laughed. "You don't do this very often, do you, Professor?"
It was true. Sam Gaddis didn't often meet male nurses in pubs on the outskirts of London and try to extract information about seventy-six-year-old diplomats whose deaths had been faked by men who paid out twenty grand in return for a lifetime of silence. He was divorced and forty-three. He was a senior lecturer in Russian History at University College London. His normal beat was Pushkin, Stalin, Gorbachev. Nevertheless, that remark took him to the edge of his patience and he said: "And how often do you do it, Calvin?" just so that Somers knew where he stood.
The reply did the trick. A little frown of panic appeared in the gap between Somers's eyes which he tried, without success, to force away. The nurse sought refuge in some peanuts and got salt on his fingers as he wrestled with the packet.
"Look," he said, "Crane didn't speak at all. Before he was admitted, they'd given him a mild anaesthetic which had rendered him unconscious. He had grey hair, shaved to look like he'd undergone chemotherapy, but his skin was too healthy for a man supposedly in his condition. He probably weighed about seventy kilos, between five foot ten and six foot. I never saw his eyes, on account of the fact they were always closed. That good enough for you?"
Gaddis didn't answer immediately. He didn't need to. He let the silence speak for him. "And Henderson?"
"What about him?"
"What kind of man was he? What did he look like? All you've told me so far is that he wore a long black overcoat and sounded like somebody doing a bad impression of David Niven."
Somers turned his head and stared at the far corner of the room.
"Charlotte never told you?"
"Told me what?"
Somers blinked rapidly and said: "Pass me that newspaper."
There was a damp, discarded copy of The Times lying in a trickle of beer on the next-door table. A black girl listening to a pink iPod smiled her assent when Gaddis asked if he could take it. He straightened it out and handed the newspaper across the table.
"You've heard of the Leighton Inquiry?" Somers asked.
Leighton was a judicial inquiry into an aspect of government policy relating to the war in Afghanistan. Gaddis had heard of it. He had read the op-eds, caught the reports on Channel Four News.
"Go on," he said.
Somers turned to page five. "You see this man?"
He flattened out the newspaper, spinning it through a hundred and eighty degrees. The nurse's narrow, nail-bitten finger skewered a photograph of a man ducking into a government Rover on a busy London street. The man was in late middle age and surrounded by a crush of reporters. Gaddis read the caption.
Sir John Brennan leaves Whitehall after giving evidence to the inquiry.
There was a smaller, formal Foreign Office portrait of Brennan set inside the main photograph. Gaddis looked up. Somers saw that he had made the connection.
"Henderson is John Brennan? Are you sure?"
"As sure as I'm sitting here looking at you." Somers drained his pint. "The man who paid me twenty grand sixteen years ago to cover everything up wasn't just any old spook. The man who called himself Douglas Henderson in 1992 is now the head of MI6."
Excerpted from THE TRINITY SIX © Copyright 2011 by Charles Cumming. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.