Tuesday, June 22nd, 1937
The Terrace Lounge
The Cathay Hotel
"Hello, Rhys." He rose, as I came up to the little table, and held out his hand. "Thank you, so much, for coming … Oh, I am so glad you could find the time. I was afraid I wouldn't get to see you, again."
The handshake went on, for some time. Mister Grey's expression was unusually serious; there was something a little — soft, maybe — about it. Something a little wistful, perhaps.
As I said, his invitation had been something of a summons, really; and I was very much on my guard. Still, I found myself blinking, a little, as he released my hand, and I sat down in the high-backed wicker chair across the table from his.
"I'm very glad to have the chance to say goodbye, sir," I said. And I realized, that I meant it.
A hint of a smile, an ironic, self-mocking one, from him, then.
"Oh, no, please. Not goodbye; goodbye is much, much too final. 'À bientôt', instead, perhaps — ? 'Auf wiedersehen' — ? Or … hm. I seem to have forgotten the correct expression in Classical Greek for, 'until we meet again' or something of the like — ?"
I blinked at him, twice; and I supplied it.
"Yes … yes, that seems to ring a bell. Well, one may hope, one way or another, may one not — ?" His expression grew a little serious again; and, perhaps, somehow, in a complicated way, sad.
"Sir … "
Silence, then, for a long moment.
I looked around me, once, quickly.
The Terrace Lounge was an open-air bar, high up in the Cathay; it faced west, away from the Whangpoo, and towards the Chapei. The Nanking Road stretched out below us, a wide artery leading to the spire of the Great World amusement center, and the green of the Racetrack. A snow-white canvas canopy protected us from the June sunshine; the air was warm, a little smoky, and the experience of just being there, was somehow exhilarating.
Or it would have been, if it hadn't been for my summons, here. If I hadn't been quite so much on my guard.
A white-jacketed waiter appeared; and two champagne-flutes were swept onto the table, gracefully. Rather dark champagne-flutes, actually; champagne cocktails, obviously. With cassis, I thought.
I looked over at him.
"Oh, I hope you don't mind; but I ordered for both of us … It will be our last drink together in Shanghai, after all; and I thought it deserving of something more, well, ceremonial, than our usual respective beverages … "
Meaning, of course, my Coke, and his gin-and-tonic. I was touched, that he remembered my champagne cocktail, from the Lotus Land Lounge.
"That is very thoughtful of you, sir."
"Please. Call me Ian — ?" That old, ingratiating smile, again.
His eyes widened, in silent astonishment.
"No, sir; you are an adult, and I am a minor, and we are not related. It would be disrespectful towards you, and a little grotesque on my part, for me to address you by your Christian name, now … "
I paused, a moment.
" … but. Were I of age — were I old enough, say, to buy you a drink — then I would be very happy to do as you ask."
He blinked at that, for a long moment, taking in all of the implications …
I looked back at him, blandly.
"Ah," from him, at last. "Ah." His face relaxed back into an expression of rueful amusement; the little laughter-lines crinkled, at the corners of his eyes. "Dear Rhys," he said —
And I could see him, beginning to turn it into a joke —
"My dear Rhys, you do know that we are in Shanghai — ? Why, in most establishments, a ten-year-old could buy an adult man a drink, and share it with him, too … Nevertheless. I must accede to your wishes."
He lifted his glass.
"May I propose a toast — ? To safe travels, and to safe harbors, for the both of us — ?"
I raised my glass, and clicked it against his; with real feeling.
"To safe travels, and safe harbors, sir."
There were a few moments of light conversation; our upcoming sailing, Father's and mine, an amusing story he'd brought back from Nanking — he didn't mention why he'd gone there, of course, and I didn't ask —
At last, a pause, on his part — a rather deliberate pause, I could tell — and he regarded me, with that uncharacteristic seriousness, again.
I looked back at him.
"Do you know, Rhys," he said at last — "I am about to commit what is perhaps the one, cardinal sin, in this business of mine? I am going to give you information; without asking for any information, in return … " A slightly-crooked smile from him, then, as he twisted the stem of his champagne-flute in his elegant fingers. "Oh, it is a sin, believe me; the Front Office would be very upset with me, if they knew … Still. One feels that one is, perhaps, owed something, just occasionally. 'Thou shalt not muzzle the ox, when he treadeth out the corn,' and all that."
I blinked at him.
He looked at me, and the crooked smile faded.
"First, let me make a liar out of myself, by asking one question, at least. Am I right in guessing, that you never provided Monsieur Simonov with your real name — ?"
I took a breath. Just the mention of Monsieur Simonov …
"Yes, sir … I started to, once; but he stopped me, he wouldn't let me tell him." I looked over at him. "How did you know — ?"
A very faint smile, from him.
"Because he did the same to me, when I visited him, last year … Not that I would have given him my real name, of course; but he didn't even want to hear my cover-story name. It was quite deflating, actually."
I looked at him, for a moment.
"So you have been in Shanghai, before. Sir." I didn't know why I should have been surprised.
"Well," he said; looking a little contrite. "Not officially, you understand. Not under my own name. And I did not have the chance to visit the Shanghai Club, or, come to think of it, establishments such as this — " His gesture took in the Cathay, the Terrace Lounge, the sweeping vista stretching out to the west —
"Sir." I said it, neutrally.
A glance, from him, that might have been even more apologetic; and then, his expression grew serious, again, Grave, even.
"Your answer is, in any event, good news … I believe, then, I can provide you with some assurance that you are in no present danger, from your recent assailants, or their associates. And, neither is your friend Tom."
He said it quietly, and with certainty.
I exhaled sharply; almost as if I'd been hit in the stomach. I'd been so certain, especially as it regarded Tom, which was the important thing … but to hear it, from an authoritative source —
Mister Grey, watching my face, went on.
"There were eight of them. We now know how they traveled here; we know where they lodged. We have managed to identify them." He paused, for just a moment. "They have all been accounted for. They were all killed, by Du Yueh-seng's men." He said it, gently.
An echoing silence, then, for just a moment. Me, vividly remembering the utter horror, of that night. Of Monsieur Simonov's defiled body; of all of the deaths …
"Who were they, sir — ?"
Another candid, appraising look from Mister Grey; then, a well-bred shrug.
"They were an assassination team, of the Soviet secret police; the NKVD. Formerly known, as the OGPU. Known before that, as the Cheka. Known, before that, under the Czars, as the Okhrana … " Another, very faint smile, from him. "The Russians, or the Soviets, at least — the Georgians seem to be ascendant, just now, naturally — the Soviets seem to have a genius for remaking their secret police forces, every few years. And that, of course, seems to entail liquidating the previous force's officers … It's a little bit of a wonder, that they can recruit people into the services, at all; but then, there's no lack of people who are attracted to the power of the position, I suppose." He gave me another careful, appraising look. "And, it isn't as though each of us is necessarily given a choice … "
He said this last, meaningfully. I wasn't sure how to interpret it.
I blinked at him, across the little table from me.
Another, short silence. The low murmur of voices; the clinking of glassware, around us.
"Do you mind if I smoke — ?" he asked, abruptly; pulling a cigaret-case out of his pocket.
"No, sir. Of course not."
"Care for one — ?" He offered me his opened case, with a practiced, casual grace; he'd never offered me a cigaret, before.
"Umm … Thank you, sir; but I'll pass."
"Hmm. Well, it is a filthy, and rather expensive habit … " He extracted a brown cigaret, and then his familiar lighter, and used it; then put everything away, again, with equal grace. I found myself looking at his hands. He inhaled, deeply, and then blew out the smoke with a certain relish; then he looked at me.
"I said I invited you here, in order to provide you with information. Quite apart from my fondness for you, I believe you're due; you have, through no fault of your own — or of your father's; he can hardly be blamed — you have gotten yourself into some rather deep waters; and I don't know that you quite realize your position, yet. However. Hearing me out, may, just possibly, complicate matters for you, a bit more … The choice of whether you would have me proceed is, of course, yours."
I looked at him, and I blinked, and I swallowed.
I thought about my answer.
"May I share what you tell me with Father, sir — ?" I paused, for a second. "Or with Tom — ?"
A brief flicker of amusement, on his face.
"Oh, as to your father, I will leave it to your conscience … I will merely point out that your poor old Traveling Companion might find himself in deep waters of his own, were it to become known in London that he'd peached. However, you are a patriotic American, and you must do as you think best … " He took another deep drag, on his cigaret; and he blew out the smoke. "As for our friend Tom — I would urge you not to. He is very much on the periphery of this business, of ours; and if you care about him, I rather think that is where you want to keep him."
This business of ours. I felt a chill.
I swallowed, again.
"All right, sir," I said, after a second. Then — "I would be grateful to hear, whatever you have to tell me … and I'll take the responsibility, for whatever comes of it."
A flash of his blue eyes, at me.
"Yes … you are rather good at taking responsibility, aren't you, Rhys — ? You are rather older than your years … Very well."
A sip from his champagne-flute; and I thought I saw him trying not to make a face. He set the glass back down, gently.
He looked at me, with a hint of his usual facetiousness.
"It is regrettably the case, in this poor world of ours, that even the friendliest of nations — such as yours, and mine — can be … interested … in each other's private affairs. Oh, it is most ungentlemanly, to be sure; it is a bit like peering over one's neighbor's garden wall, or noticing a tradesman's delivery of beer, or of wine … Or, perhaps, it is a bit like accidentally reading a neighbor's mis-delivered mail — "
The little laughter-lines crinkled, very slightly, at the corners of his eyes —
"But. In the end, however ungentlemanly it might be, such awareness of what one's neighbors are doing, can be extremely useful. It allows one to avoid surprises; an embarrassing trade agreement, here; a new treaty, there; an unpublished understanding between Governments, which puts one's own territories, or possessions, in some peril … "
He looked away, off over the Chapei District, then, for a moment; deliberately, I thought, so as not to gauge my reaction. Then, he resumed.
"Possessions. Quite the concept, isn't it — ? Let us call them, interests, instead; that sounds much less aggressive, and acquisitive, no — ?"
His eyes came back to mine; his words were dry, and self-mocking.
"In any event. My country, you will agree, has no lack of — interests — in Asia. Hong Kong, for one, and primarily; a very lovely city — I hope you get to see it, sometime — and, highly important to our economy, and utterly indefensible, militarily. Singapore, and the rest of Malaya, for another; there is talk of 'Fortress Singapore', of course, but it is so very far from home … And then, there is Burma. And beyond Burma, of course, there is India. India, rightly or wrongly — and you can perhaps guess, my feelings, on this — India is rather important, to us."
This last came out driest of all.
"Sir," from me; acknowledging the point.
He took another pull on his cigaret; and then he tapped the ash, carefully, into the crystal ashtray on the table between us.
"So. You will understand, then, that we — my government, that is — are concerned about Japanese intentions in Asia. We, or they — goodness knows, I am not in Government, thank God! — they, are aware that the Japanese Empire has amassed huge land forces in China; their numbers are growing, by the day; and, there is very little to keep them from marching south from Peking, through Hong Kong, and then sailing and coming around Singapore, and coming up through Burma … You get the general idea."
I had not thought of such things from the purely British point of view before, though. I confess, I had been thinking in terms of the Philippines, and of Mister Nieuwenhuis' Netherlands East Indies …
I said nothing.
Mister Grey took another, graceful puff on his cigaret; and then he stubbed it out, in the crystal ashtray. He gave me an amused look.
"And so, perhaps, under the circumstances, you can imagine the interest in Whitehall, when a very important man — and your father is a very important man, Rhys; perhaps more so than you realize — when a very important American man is … noticed … hobnobbing with your President Roosevelt, and with Cabinet Secretaries, and with members of your military Staffs — and then goes haring off, at very great speed and very short notice, to Shanghai, China? Perhaps the one, best place in the world, suitable for conducting confidential talks with Japanese officials — ?" He paused for a moment, and extracted his cigaret-case again. "Perhaps even a Japanese Viscount, to whom that man has been linked, professionally — ?"
Silence, for a moment. More clinking of glassware. Mister Grey lit another cigaret.
"You … your people … knew all this, sir?"
A smile from Mister Grey, behind the smoke.
"Well … we knew enough, apparently. People notice comings-and-goings, in and around your White House. It was, intriguingly, also noticed that this important man's presence was kept as confidential, as possible. And, if I may say so — "
He gave me another, longer, apologetic look.
"- it was also remarked upon, that this important personage withdrew his son from school, before the end of term, to accompany him; a rather extraordinary thing to do … "
I blinked at him. Shocked. That I had come to the attention of somebody's Intelligence Service — ?
" … but. I will confess, it was your final destination of Shanghai, that seems to have gotten you the attention which you have received … " He paused, for a moment; and then, his face changed. "No; no. There is more to it than that. By God, if I am talking out of turn, I might as well make the most of it." He looked over at me, and smiled. "Do you know, Rhys — " He said it, and then he paused, for just a moment. His smile deepened.
"Sir — ?"
"I was just thinking. Do you know, that this is tremendous fun? I spend all of my time collecting information from other people, while revealing as little as possible … So, it is very gratifying, to actually be revealing information, in something other than those wretched, coded cables! And, I have you to thank for it … Anyway. I was about to reveal, that it was not merely your destination, which attracted our attention. No. As I have been told, it was also, that your father spent so much time, talking to Harry Hopkins. Your President's own homme de confiance."
I blinked at him. Mister Hopkins was well-known, of course. And Father had mentioned his name.
"Um — sir?"
"Oh, yes. Your President is famously gregarious; he likes to have people around him, so dining at the White House, by itself, is not so very unusual. But we have learned that when Hopkins is involved, it means something serious is taking place … There." He looked over at me, with a slightly-more-serious expression. "So. Now I really have peached. But I was told, it's true. And, after all, if we can see it … you can be sure, that others can see it, too."
A significant look from him; and a pause.
I realized, with a start, that I'd just been given — deliberately given — some information which was very important. That I should, by rights, pass it on to Father, so that he could in turn pass it on —
To whom? To President Roosevelt — ? To Mister Hopkins — ? To the Secret Service — ?
It all seemed ridiculous. Absurd. Unreal, even. Yet, Father had indeed met with the President. And, with Mister Hopkins —
It came to me, that Mister Grey was right. That Father really was a more important man, than I had realized.
Mister Grey took another sip from his champagne-flute. The sun was getting lower; soon, we would be out of the shade of the canvas canopy.
"So," he said. "The rest is history." He looked over at me, and the seriousness was gone from his expression. "You and your father set out — and, do you have any idea, how the rapidity of your departure, stirred things up, for us?"
An amused look, from him.
"You see, I was to meet up with Sayles in Hawaii, before boarding your boat; the Front Office actually flew him in from Hong Kong, via the Clipper. Absolutely shocking! Do you have any idea of the expense — ? And then, they called me down from British Columbia to San Francisco, and flew me out to Hawaii by the Clipper, as well … !" He cocked his head just slightly, and the laughter-lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes. "As it happened, I took off, the very same day you sailed. I remember very well looking down, at the boats beneath us, as we passed overhead. I would have infinitely, infinitely preferred being down there, with you … " A mock-sheepish expression on his face, then. "I do not fly, well."
I blinked, twice. That he had been on the ship, that I'd seen, that I'd photographed for Jack — ?
Another, quick draw, on his cigaret. To hide his smile, I thought.
"And, you know the rest. We boarded the boat in Honolulu, and we've all been happy shipmates and travel companions, ever since." He lifted his champagne-flute in a salute, and took another sip. "Well," he went on a little ruefully. "Some of us, I must admit, have been happier shipmates, than others."
I saw my opening.
"Is one permitted to ask a question, sir — ?"
He looked at me, smiling broadly.
"Of course! Now is the right time for it. I told you, I'm having a great deal of fun."
"It was you, and not Mister Sayles, who searched my cabin, and read my letters; wasn't it?" It was the one fear, which I wanted to exorcize. The thought of Mister Sayles reading Jack's wonderful letters, his loving words, meant for me …
Mister Grey looked just a little more solemn, for a moment.
"Yes. I pulled rank on him, actually; it was rather properly his job. But I guessed at what I might find, and I didn't want him getting wind of it … Incidentally. I do hope you'll forgive me, for gently pointing out how very dangerous such things can be — ? Even though your friend Jack is to be commended, for being less than completely explicit."
I looked at him, drily.
"Of course, sir. And shall I also forgive you, for breaking into my cabin, and my nightstand, and reading my personal papers in the first place — ?"
Another crinkling of the laughter-lines at the corners of his eyes; and then he managed to pull his expression into something a little more contrite.
"Oh, I do hope so; that would be very decent of you … If it makes any difference, I did leave a bit of a warning for you. I put your letters back in chronological order; it was my way of hinting, that you might want to take a little better care of them."
"And did you rearrange the order of two of the cartoons, enclosed in one of the letters, for the same reason?"
Mister Grey looked chagrined.
"Oh, dear. Did I really do that — ?"
"No, it wasn't deliberate." He looked off at the Chapei, and looked honestly rueful, for a moment. "That was sloppy of me. That was extremely sloppy of me. Thank you, quite sincerely, for pointing that out. Such mistakes can have serious consequences."
Silence then, for a few moments.
"Thank you, sir," I said at last — I said it quietly — "for not allowing Mister Sayles to read my friend's letters."
A sideways smile from him, and he reached over and touched the back of my hand, just very lightly; and I tried not to shiver.
We looked out over the Chapei, towards the westering sun, then, for just a few silent seconds. When he spoke again, it was with that same seriousness, in his voice.
"Sayles is a very dangerous man," he began, "and you would do well to avoid him, at all costs, if you can. He is more intelligent that he lets on, for one thing. He is also mean, and vindictive; and he is every bit as obsessed with the threat of Communism, as he portrays. He is also genuinely pro-Fascist. And, quite apart from his admiration for Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini, he suffers from the very common delusion that those two gentlemen are Europe's bulwark against the Bolshevik threat." He gave me a dry look. "It is the delusion that will get us into the next European war, of course."
I could not disagree.
"Thank you for telling me, sir." I looked back out over the city, feeling a little hollow. "I have no intention of having any further dealings with Mister Sayles. I'm sure I'll never see him again."
A look from him. "Let us hope you're right … "
Again that feeling, of him not saying something; then, a final drag on his cigaret, and he stubbed it out in the crystal ashtray.
"It was your visiting Monsieur Simonov that prompted him to reveal the truth about your grandparents, by the way," he went on. "It was an implicit blackmail threat, aimed at you and your father. He simply could not stand the idea of either of you having dealings with an old-line Bolshevik like Simonov … "
He shook his head in disbelief; and then, he gave me a slightly self-deprecating look.
"You see, we may work for the same organization; but his ordinary line of work is quite different from mine. I'm in the business of acquiring information, from others; he is usually in the business, of preventing our own information, from reaching others. Of shutting down networks, of, shall we say, spies. 'Counter-intelligence', is the usual term for it. I find it quite amusing, in this particular context … I'm afraid he reverted to form, in your case. Poor old Sayles." Another slight, wry smile, and another sip from his champagne flute.
"May one, perhaps, ask another question, sir — ?"
Another amused look, from him. "We exist to serve. I am completely at your disposal, in every possible respect."
The innuendo was unmistakable. It was almost reassuring.
"How did you and Mister Sayles even know about my visits to Monsieur Simonov? I would swear that we were not followed, not even once."
An even deeper look of amusement, on his face.
"You were indeed not followed. And, this goes to the good news, which I have to impart. You were led. Your Mister Chen was working — is still working — for us, among several others. His employment situation is, you see, a little complicated."
A feeling of shock, at first; I felt it rush through me. A glad shock.
"He's alive, sir? You're sure — ?"
Mister Grey smiled, warmly, sympathetically.
"Oh, yes; I have spoken to him, via telephone. By the way, he sends you his very best wishes, along with his deepest regrets, for not being here to see you off. He and his father have found it expedient, under the circumstances, to go visit their family's ancestral village, for a month or two." Mister Grey took another, tentative sip from his champagne flute. "I can't say I blame him."
I felt my breath go out, in a long sigh. I had thought myself responsible for his death. Just to know that he was alive —
I looked over at Mister Grey.
"I don't completely understand, though. Sir. He had to go away. Is he in any danger, here — ?"
A look from him.
"Not from the NKVD, certainly. But you see, in addition to working for his father, and for us, he also works for Du Yueh-seng; that, incidentally, is what he was off doing, when his father summoned him that night. And that is why he left Simonov's house, so precipitously; he went to alert Du's people. I believe he thought it the best way of protecting all of you, among other reasons. And, so, given the rather public and graphic nature of the resulting incident, the Shanghai Municipal Police might well wish to ask him some rather embarrassing questions … "
Silence, for just a moment. More clinking of glassware; a white-jacketed waiter glided by, carrying a tray of drinks.
I looked over at Mister Grey.
"He was working for his father … and for your organization … and for Du Yueh-seng? Sir?" I said it, a little drily.
Another amused smile. Again, the laughter seemed just beneath the surface.
"Oh, yes … he is a rather ambitious young man; and it is Shanghai, after all. And of course, we all know of each other's association with him. I find myself hoping that Du Yueh-seng doesn't take too much of a cut, out of what we're paying young Mister Chen; but Du is known as a rather hard bargainer … "
I remembered Mister Chen warning me, about asking too many questions; warning me against coming to Du Yueh-seng's attention. I wondered how voluntary his employment with Du Yueh-seng, might be.
"By the way," Mister Grey went on, lightly. He gave me a sideways-look; and the laughter lines crinkled up around his eyes, again. "I have the distinct impression, that he is very fond of you, Rhys … as any sane man would be, naturally. But he specifically asked me to tell you, that he would miss you, and your bicycle rides together. I worked with him last year; and I have never heard him be quite so sentimental, before." The laughter-lines crinkled, a little more deeply.
"Sir — ?"
"He is one of us, of course. Of our tribe." A little sideways-tilt of his head, as he said it. "If you hadn't already guessed. And — I would imagine — from seeing you and Tom together, he likely guessed about you, both, too … And just possibly, there was a hint of mutual attraction between you and Mister Chen, as well — ?"
I felt myself flushing, and I looked down. And then I looked back up at him, silently, as the question occurred to me.
"No … No. You and Tom are not terribly obvious — except to those of us, with eyes to see. For the most part, it is him; it is the way he looks at you." He said it, gently.
"That's interesting, sir. He said the same thing about you." It just slipped out; I couldn't help it. To Mister Grey's credit, his mischievous smile just deepened.
I paused, for just a moment.
"No, sir; what I was wondering was — " I swallowed, as I tried to phrase it — "Why was Mister Chen let go — ? Why didn't they take him, as he ran out?"
A momentary, and slightly-fraught, silence.
"Ah." He shifted in his wicker chair, a little; and he produced his cigaret-case, and lighter, again. "Ah. We — my colleagues, and I — wondered about that, as well; once we knew who and what your pursuers, were."
He extracted another cigaret from his case, and lit it; and exhaled a stream of smoke.
"In truth, we don't know. It might be that they didn't want to make the noise, just then, for risk of scaring you off; it might be, that they simply made a mistake." A candid, and serious look, from him. "For my part, I think it may have been because he was, in their eyes, just a young Chinese, dressed as an office-clerk, and so, not worth it … racism is just as rampant in the Soviet Union as it is, anywhere else. There is, however, another possibility, that has occurred to us … I believe he is, or was, in the habit of affectionately calling you, 'Boss' — ?"
He lifted an eyebrow in my direction.
"Um … yes, sir." I swallowed. "Uh … I think, actually, that he might have called me 'Boss', right before we went inside Monsieur Simonov's house."
I remembered the words, the scene, well enough. The lights blazing; the door, open; the horror of Granddaughter's unearthly, wordless keening … 'I think I'm coming with you this time, too, Boss.'
I remembered how glad I'd been. I felt, again, deeply, how glad I was, that he was still alive.
"That is what he said, too." Another draw, on his cigaret; another slow exhalation. A pause. "And that might have been a very fortuitous choice of words, on his part. Because when you think about it, when one overhears a stranger being addressed as 'Boss', the logical question becomes; 'Boss of what — ?' And their task, beyond that of mere assassination, would have included interrogating any of Monsieur Simonov's associates — if warranted. Before eliminating them, at any rate."
I felt the blood leave my face.
The three of us — Mademoiselle Irina, Tom, and I, had been chased; but we hadn't been shot at, at least not until I started the shooting. I had wondered about that, as well. I'd thought it was because of the noise.
Now I found myself wondering what 'interrogation', by the squad who had done — well, what they had done — to Monsieur Simonov, would have entailed …
"It is speculation, on my part," he said, gently; watching my face. "And I am sorry to have to bring it up. And I am very sorry that you got involved in the whole, ghastly scene; I have experienced nothing even remotely like it, in my own career, if you could call it that. If it is any comfort to you. Which I doubt."
I blinked at him, for a long moment. The everyday sounds of the bar, surrounding us.
"Sir … if I may ask; how much, exactly, do you know about what happened, that night — ?"
I thought I knew the answer, already.
A shrug, from Mister Grey; and a flick of his cigaret-ash, into the crystal ashtray.
"Pretty much everything, I should think," he said; with a slightly-apologetic smile. The laughter-lines crinkled, again, just a little; and then his expression grew serious. "We reconstructed events, as best we could. And, we talked to a number of people, as usual … " He shrugged. "I spoke, myself, to Monsieur Simonov's friends, the ones who took Mademoiselle Irina in, and the ones who patched you up. I know what you reported to them … "
A very frank look from him.
I knew, then, that he knew about my run, to draw off our pursuers; and I braced myself, for whatever he might say …
Instead, he just went on.
"You will be glad to hear, by the way, that Mademoiselle Irina and her new guardians are safely installed in Harbin."
I exhaled, again.
"I am glad to hear it, sir." And I was. I paused, for just a moment, and then gave him a very direct look. "Do you know, then, sir, what Father's business with Monsieur Simonov was — ?"
An amused look from him.
"Dear Rhys. Everyone in Shanghai who has — or, alas, had — dealings with Monsieur Simonov, did so for the one reason … Although, I must say," he went on, looking me up and down, for a moment, "if I'd known he was such a good tailor, I would have had him run up some suits for me, as well. That is just superbly cut."
"Thank you, sir," from me, a little shortly. He was showing off; and he hadn't answered the question.
A quick flash of his eyes at me, with the laughter-lines crinkling again; and then he grew serious, once more.
"Yes. Well." He paused. A look of apology, crossed his face. "The fact is, yes, we know quite a bit about your father's — arrangements — with Monsieur Simonov, and did so, even before Monsieur Simonov's death."
A pause, as he took in my own expression.
He went on, gently.
"And we know quite a bit about the rest of your father's business, his official business, here in Shanghai, as well … You remember I told you, once, that the key to acquiring information, is simply to listen? Well. It is true all over the world, that people enjoy talking, to an attentive listener; particularly when by doing so, they can show off how important they are … " He paused, carefully. "It is a phenomenon which is particularly true in world capitals, and seats of power. Places such as, shall we say, Geneva? Or, Washington, D.C. — ?"
A long silence, between us. Mister Grey stubbed out his cigaret, in the crystal ashtray.
"I see, sir."
A sympathetic look, from him.
"I hope you won't judge others too harshly. It is not wartime, after all … or at least it isn't, yet. It is hard for most poor souls to take such doings all that seriously … And, above and beyond all that, we employed the most secret, and unscrupulous, of methods!"
He smiled impishly again. Once again, the laughter was right beneath the surface.
"Such as, sir?" He was obviously waiting for the question.
"Oh, yes. Such as, the retrieval of used carbon paper. Did you know, I had an arrangement with one of the crew members on the President Hoover, that I was to get all the litter from the Radio Office wastebasket each day — ? I let on, that I was looking for inside stock tips … In any case. It was through used carbon paper, that we discovered that the routing of your father's cables to Washington went through Geneva … and that led to a contact in Geneva, and that eventually led to, shall we say, a rather profitable relationship, with a rather unknowingly-indiscreet contact, in Washington — ?"
Once again, I had the the distinct impression that I was being given valuable information, to pass on to others. Something more than just personal tale-telling. And, deliberately so. It made me uncomfortable.
I blinked at him.
He gave me a quick, amused look.
"And it was by the same method, that I discovered that you, yourself, had sent a coded telegram to your friend back home in the United States! I will say, that gave me some pause … Whatever could they be saying to one another, that required messages in code — ?" He watched my face, for just a moment, and then held up his hand. "No; no. Please don't say anything; I said, I'm enjoying being the one to tell the tale, far too much, just now." He smiled, disarmingly.
I would not have told him the truth, anyway. I would not implicate Jack, or Tony.
I paused, for just a moment.
"Did you manage to break the cyphers of any of the messages, sir?" I asked it smoothly, and lightly, while touching the stem of my champagne-flute; and I watched his face, very closely.
A look of amused surprise, from him.
"Oh, good God, no. Such things can be done, I know; but it is extraordinarily labor-intensive, and expensive. I think we, in my organization, at least, reserve such things for the transmissions of foreign militaries … It is much easier to get people to just, talk to one. And when it involves alcohol — and it usually does — it is also much more pleasant."
"I see, sir," I said. Drily.
And then, a thought struck me. I managed to sneak a quick glance at his champagne-flute, without being obvious; he'd barely touched it, just as I'd barely touched mine.
I suppressed the urge to smile.
Mister Grey's demeanor grew serious again, then, for just a moment; hesitant, even. He glanced down at the cigaret-case and lighter, which he'd left on top of the table, and made a motion as if to reach for them … and then, he stopped.
Instead, he looked up at me.
"You know, Rhys, if I may perhaps be forgiven, once again, for the sin of being serious … " He took a breath. "I do hope you don't hold my activities, concerning you and your father, too hard against me? In the end, of course, it is a job. Undertaken, under orders." A pause, from him. "Just as your father's activities, have been a job; undertaken under orders, however gladly accepted … I do hope, at some point, you can at least partially forgive me for the discomfort I have caused you, and for the wretched intrusion into your private affairs? It would make me very happy, to think so."
I had seen Mister Grey look self-mockingly plaintive, before; but this was the real thing. He quite meant it.
I considered my response, for a long moment.
"I think, sir," I began, slowly — "I think, that before arriving here in Shanghai, that might have been difficult. But, since then, I've been through a bit." I looked down at my champagne-flute, as I said it; and then I looked back up at him. "You were doing your job, sir; and as far as I can tell, you've done no harm to my country, or to Father, or to me. In fact, you have done us some favors … "
I gave him a glance, acknowledging the nuggets of information he'd imparted to me, today —
"So," I went on. "As far as I'm concerned, the matter is done, and settled. And, I would be glad to call you a friend, if that isn't too presumptuous. Sir — ?"
I reached my hand out, across the table; and I watched, as a very real smile bloomed, on Mister Grey's face. He took my hand, slowly, and we shook.
"That is very generous of you," he said, quietly. "And I would be very glad, to consider you a friend."
Insofar, I made the mental reservation, as it did not hurt my country's interests …
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