Aside

Tin Soldiers

George Wetherby.
Down from Tunbrudge Wells.
Retired: “old soldier” for the Circus.
Handled Hong Kong for 15 years, ran the China networks.
Sent agents in and out of the People’s Republic. Lost some.
Had a few triumphs, too.
All in all, a “good run” for the old Cold Warhorse.

Now: plaid scarf and dull overcoat. Stooped shoulders. Gray hair.
Watery blue-gray eyes
bulging behind steel-rimmed spectacles.

Down to London, to a coffee shop.
Gazing out the rain-streaked window,
sipping his Oolong through a sugar cube.
Watching the Tube entrance, the exhaust-coughing buses.

Enter: an American. Tom Shlegel.
The usual brashness.
Prep school to Dartmouth College.
Asian Languages. Two years in Japan.
Seven years as a Senior Intelligence Analyst.
Now an up-and-comer in special ops.
A Langley man, fair haired, walks like a boxer.
Works out with a rope and free weights four times a week,
gets up a healthy sweat and sits in the sauna
“leeching the poisons right out of the old system.”

He shakes the water from his raincoat,
hangs it by the entrance,
smooths his hair back and heads to George,
raising one hand. George, self-deprecating as always,
draws his shoulders in and nods.
Tom drops into the seat across,
lays the big-knuckled hand on the table.
-Having a spot of tea?
He grins at his joke. Brits. Their cliched habits.
-Naturally, with a slice of lemon, George says.
They look at each other.
Tom is smiling widely.
George shows just a hint of amusement.

Pleasantries ensue. What else?
How’s the wife, offsprings’ recent accomplishments and so forth.
Playbook.

-So what’s the furor? Tom asks.
-It’s the assassin lady again, I’m afraid. Molly Vance.
-Killed some more hit men?
-Worse. Destroyed the whole Tokyo Section. Took down the Man in the Hat in Zurich. The Group is livid. Stirred up about the blue eyed apocaplyse.
-Shaking in their boots eh? Ha ha.
-They want her, stat. And we’re on the line. A working group’s forming. I’m to be control. They want you as my leftenant.
-What if I don’t want to get any dirtier hands than I’ve got already, old man?

George sips. Puts down his teacup. Thin china, it clinks on the blue-bordered saucer. Tom’s candid gaze is on him, seemingly unfocussed, taking it all in. Relaxed. The face expressionless but for a trace of appreciation at George’s wit. The old alertness always comes back.

-I’m afraid just as Whitehall has put the grip on me . . .
George shrugs. Pilate dunks his hands in the basin.
-Ah. You’ve heard it through the Atlantic grapevine, then. NIS is in the basket too. The old fogies are going to wind me up and make me stagger across the carpet.
-It’s Christmas morning. Once the wrapping’s torn off, Tom, the tin soldiers have to march. You know that.

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