Maestro: 4 (The Herbie Kruger Novels), page 1
For Jan St. John who helped to make a dream come true
Indeed we should certainly have been (in Vienna) already, had we not been obliged against our will to spend five whole days in Passau. This delay, for which His Grace the Bishop of Passau was responsible, has made me lose eighty gulden. …
Letter from Leopold Mozart to Lorenz Hagenaur,
3 October 1762
(UNITED KINGDOM. NEW YORK. VIRGINIA. AUTUMN 1991)
THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO KILL Louis Passau was made as he was leaving Lincoln Center after his 90th Birthday Concert. Big Herbie Kruger was standing next to him when it happened and, in the turmoil, he found himself sitting beside the venerable Maestro in the back of an unmarked FBI car. In turn this led to Herbie being present during the second attempt and becoming deeply involved in everything that followed.
Eventually, back in England, there were questions in the House—
“There is strong evidence that a former member of the Secret Intelligence Service—Eberhardt Lukas Kruger—was involved in the recent incident, in New York, concerning Louis Passau, the internationally famous orchestral conductor. Can the Prime Minister assure us that Mr. Kruger had no official sanction from the Intelligence Service or the Prime Minister’s office?”
The Prime Minister, as always at that time—though the situation was to change in the following spring—did not confirm that such a thing as the Intelligence Service existed, but assured the House that the P.M.’s office certainly had not sanctioned Mr. Kruger’s presence.
In another part of London, many people wondered why Big Herb was there at all. Those who knew no better said he had come back from retirement and was given the Passau job just to make sure he did not go rogue in Europe. Others maintained that Herbie had come up from his Hampshire cottage without saying a word to his wife, Martha. Later, they said, he knocked on the Chiefs door, demanding to join in the activity which had been going on since the autumn of 1989, when, according to the history books, the Cold War ended.
There were even people who said they had seen him roaming around the building. Others told of sightings near his old office in the Whitehall Annex. These encounters, it was said, all took place towards the end of August 1991, or, as the chronologists put it, during the rise of Big Boris, formerly Boris the Boozer, latterly Boris the Brave. In the end, the two things nobody could deny were that Big Boris Yeltsin had been courageous during the attempted August coup in Moscow, and the fact that Big Herbie Kruger stood beside the grand old man of American music when the balloon went up.
A junior officer was heard to say that it could only have happened because Herb was a music lover; another muttered something about the whole business being stupid anyway. “Who’d want to bother with a ninety-year-old guy accused of being one of Hitler’s spies during Big Two?” he proclaimed—Big Two being the way younger people sometimes refer to the Second World War these days.
Most of those who walked the secret halls of the British Intelligence community agreed that the entire thing was stupid, wasteful, and could bring no rewards. Particularly at a time when every intelligence agency worth its salt was out and about in the crumbling Soviet empire: holding auditions and setting up new networks; listening to the death rattle of communism; or humming around the Middle East, trying to beef up assets in all the likely flashpoints, of which there were many.
Earlier, at the end of 1989, there had been an instruction, said to have come from the highest possible source, to get out there and recruit. So every able-bodied man and woman got out there and recruited. Now was the hour; now, it was essential; never in the field of human conflict, et cetera, et cetera.
For the first time since the middle of the Cold War everyone was desperate for HUMINT, as they called Human Intelligence. They needed bodies on the ground, and networks in place, just to be certain that intelligence came back on all levels: political, military, economic, even religious. As the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service was heard to observe, “Like the President of the United States, we need a thousand points of light; but we need them in Eastern Europe and at the heart of the Soviet Union. A thousand points of light hidden under the bushels of darkness.”
Then came the Kremlin coup of 1991: a strangely inept affair, brought with stunning immediacy into the world’s living rooms, leaving behind it a collage of clear, screen-burned images: the nondescript plotters, looking like archetypal gray men; the familiar takeover bulletins—Mikhail Sergeyevich was ill; his doctors had ordered rest; this was a crisis; the Army would guard the streets and public buildings; there was a curfew. Then, Big Boris Yeltsin climbing up onto one of the tanks to urge the crowd not to be fooled. Later he sat on the balcony of the Russian Federation building—ironically known as the White House—uneasy, holding a portable bulletproof screen and surrounded by Kalashnikov-toting hard men. The reflections remained. The crowd versus the tanks. Flames in the night. Crushed bodies being pulled clear. Angry words spat and shouted between bemused soldiers and civilians. Tank crews looking bewildered. Then the return of Gorbachev, tired and worried. The arrest, or suicides, of the plotters, and the final card: the Communist Party outlawed. The scramble for escape, the shredders, more suicides, the hauling down of Iron Felix Dzerzhinsky’s statue from in front of the old KGB headquarters. White faces at the windows of the building which backed onto the Lubyanka. The fall of Lenin’s effigies all over the old Soviet Union and the declarations of individual states to secede from the Union. Chaos, and a new—maybe more dangerous—world.
The Soviet people, the pundits proclaimed, had tasted freedom. The coup had failed because the people demanded democracy: a sentiment that was only partly true, leaving the experts in political warfare wondering what would have happened if Big Boris Nikolayevich had not climbed onto that tank; or if the Kremlin plotters had done all the things really necessary to a coup d’état.
Whatever the answers to those questions, it was perfectly reasonable to suspect the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service of watching his own back by recalling Herbie Kruger and sending him to the United States on a wild-goose chase. Everyone knew that Big Herb would have given his eye teeth to regroup old networks. After all, he was probably the most experienced agent-runner behind the Curtain in the old days. Men who had known him then even suggested he might go on the hunt in Russia itself. Big Herb, they said, would give several teeth for an hour alone, in a locked room, with certain former officers of the old-style KGB.
The truth was st
“It’s the Office.” Martha had answered the call. “For you, Herb,” covering the mouthpiece with her palm. “They want to talk with you.”
“Ja?” Herbie said loudly into the telephone, reverting to his old and annoying habit of treating telephones as though the distant party could only hear if he shouted.
“Ja? Kruger here.”
A calm man at the distant end asked if he recognized the voice. Kruger said, “Ja, of course: know you speaking from the bottom of a well.” Then the voice told him that it would be very pleasant if he could meet with the Headmaster as soon as it was convenient.
“Sure, let me know time and place and I’ll be there like a shoot, old sheep.” Herb knew that Young Worboys, now far from young, and in an exalted position at the Office, would play it straight.
“What’s the harm?” he asked Martha later, as though to quiet his own concern about this call from the past.
“The harm is you’ve gone private for years.” Martha was deeply suspicious of the whole business. “Now they can’t do without you? Now, when the map’s being redrawn and everyone’s running around in circles. Now, they need you, Herb, but you don’t need them. Now they want you for the crisis. Don’t go.”
“Let’s wait and see what they really want. Maybe I bring back a piece of the Wall so we can have it on our piano in a little glass case.”
“We haven’t got a piano.”
“Then to hell with it. Maybe I get a bit of Dzerzhinsky’s statue instead.” All this in German, of course. Herbie and Martha usually spoke in their native language when they were on their own.
At this point, Herbie would have laughed in your face if you had suggested he was about to become one of the leading figures in the drama-sodden theater of the absurd which followed what he had defined as being “more like a coup de ville than a coup d’état.”
The next morning, as though the good fairy had worked some magic with the usually torpid British postal service, there was a card. A humorous card with a jet-black front on which was printed “Folkestone Night Life.” On the back was a date and nine words. “See you seven thirty Tuesday next at the Odeon.”
“Though they’d given up using that place years ago,” Herbie said to himself while other times, long past, flooded through his head. The safe house was a pretty little terraced three-story place in a small cul-de-sac behind the Odeon in Kensington High Street. He figured that it had belonged to the Office for so long somebody had probably lost the deeds.
“Tuesday next” meant the day after tomorrow—a Thursday—and for “seven thirty” read ten in the morning.
He spotted the surveillance car parked in the cul-de-sac on his way in, and Young Worboys actually let him into the house.
“What cheer, Herb? Lovely to see you again.”
“I was reliably informed the freeze had gone out of the Cold War, and Mikhail Sergeyevich’s trashed the Communist Party, so what’s with the cloak and dagger dugskullery?” Herbie laughed and followed him through the minute lobby and into the main living room. There was coffee on the table, and Arthur Railton, and the CSIS—Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, known to most as C.
“Hallo, Art, how’s old Naldo?” Herbie beamed. Naldo was Art Railton’s father’s nickname, and several lifetimes ago, in the rubble of Berlin, it was Naldo Railton who had employed a tall scrawny teenager to ferret in the D.P. camps. The teenager had been Big Herbie and Naldo was his first link into the world of secrets.
“Pa’s having himself a ball, Herb. You haven’t met the new Chief, have you?”
“Ah. C as in secret.” Herbie grinned at the Chief. In his mind he heard the words, “You don’t need this guy, Herbie. He needs you.”
The Chief had taken over after Herbie’s time, so knew him only from the files and copious stories. Herbie knew him from occasional words dropped by old friends. Worboys was his Deputy and Art Railton, having done a lot of time in Ireland and then the Middle East, was now on the European desk.
“Mr. Kruger.” The Chief rose, extending a hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Please sit down. Coffee?”
“Bet it wasn’t all good. Ja, yes, I’ll take coffee. Black with much sugar. Death through the mouth, eh?” Herb poised over an armchair, swayed backwards and then let gravity take over. With his height and bulk he tended to plummet rather than sink into a chair. He looked around, as though savoring the room. “I remember this place from way back, when you were all feeding from the breast. Nobody changed the decor and it still smells just as bad: sour milk, dust, armpits, and illicit sex.” Then Herbie looked straight at the Chief and, as he spoke, took in all there was to see of the man—tall, thin, ascetic-looking, with the blazing eyes of a zealot. “So, you want me back now there’s real trouble?” He gave his daft smile, which took in nobody but the CSIS, who knew no better.
“Actually, Mr. Kruger, no.” The Chief sat opposite him and Art Railton did the honors with the government-issue china. “I want to ask you a question.”
“Let me tell you one thing, first off.” Herbie was still in the stupid big smile mode. “Europe, I can do without. They changed the scenery; they changed the names; it’s confused. The Communist Party’s gone—except for the thousands of good members who might, or might not, accept the inevitable, but I doubt it. Civil War, maybe? Who knows? One thing is for sure: they’re all bloody paranoid? Right?”
“Yes, we’re aware of all the permutations, all the possibilities, now the Kremlin’s opened Pandora’s box.” The Chief remained very cool. He had obviously been well briefed on the idiosyncrasies of Kruger.
“Sure, Pandemonium’s box. All the myths and legends gone. Everybody’s heroes went for nothing, like always. They’re even threatening to send George back.” By George, Herbie meant George Blake, the Soviet penetration agent who had done more damage than any other within the SIS. Sentenced to forty-two years imprisonment, he had escaped and returned to Russia after serving only six years. “All heroes grow old and die. Look at William Tell.” He did not move a muscle.
Nobody knew how to take the last remark, but Young Worboys, who had probably spent more time with Herbie than anyone else, nodded and muttered, “And Robin Hood.”
“All is changed, and I don’t want anything to do with it,” Herbie declaimed.
“Then we are in agreement.” The Chief looked startled. “Now, my question …”
Herbie, feeling that he could be expansive, opened his arms and said, “Ask away, Chief, I have nothing to hide.”
“What does the name Louis Passau mean to you, Mr. Kruger?”
There was what Art Railton later described as a long, disjointed silence. Then—
“You’re pulling my pisser,” Herbie laughed, and the Chief gave an annoyed frown. Art Railton and Young Worboys winced. The CSIS was a known Presbyterian and did not hold with coarse language.
“I’m not pulling anything, Mr. Kruger. …”
“Call me Herbie, everyone does.”
“Then, what does the name Louis Passau mean to you, Herbie?”
“Ach!” Big Herb shook his huge head, like a dog ridding itself of rain. “So, you really want to hear? You want Kruger to make a fool of himself. Okay. Passau? He’s simply the best. Genius. Better than von Karajan, Furtwangler, any of those. Better than Bernstein—who was also genius; better than Maazel and Previn. Name any, living or dead, and Passau is better. The man exists for music. His baton is like a magic wand. This man has been dedicated to music since a child, and has accomplished more than any other conductor. The last of the great maestros. The greatest orchestra; the perfect opera company; ballet. You name it, Passau is simply the best. Also, amazing stamina and physique. He will soon be ninety years of age. …”
“… and last year alone, at age eighty-nine, he was still conducting—major concerts, and recording sessions. As I say, he is the best. Could even make Lloyd-Webber’s music sound original, if he bothered; and—” He stopped suddenly, as though something unthinkable had crawled into his mind.
He looked at the Chief, at Art Railton, then at Young Worboys, “You can’t mean it? This oaf, what’s his name? The schmarotzer history teacher … ?”
“John Stretchfield,” Art supplied.
“Ja, that’s the idiot. Writes a book, Hitler’s Unfound Spies, says …”
“Hitler’s Unknown Spies,” the Chief corrected, “and Mr. Stretchfield is a renowned scholar and historian. A man with a very good track record on matters of security in World War Two.”
“Ja. Okay. Unknown. So, this Stretchfield has a good track record. What of Maestro Passau’s record on the tracks? This historian fingers Louis Passau as a Nazi spy in Second War.” He gave a giant shrug. “Who the hell cares, anyway? Even if it were the truth, who the hell cares? He has given more to civilization, so who in hell cares? Look what happened when the Wall came down. He didn’t just sit in the middle and play a cello like Maestro Rostropovich, or conduct the Beethoven Ninth in Berlin, like poor Lenny. No, he canceled all his commitments and took that marvelous orchestra of his on a tour of the old Eastern Bloc, giving them everything from Bartók to Shostakovich and then some. In this spring he did it again: you realize that?”
The Chief nodded, “Yes, Budapest, Berlin, Sofia, Prague and Warsaw.”
“Then Tel Aviv,” softly, from Worboys as though this had been some added sin.
“So?” Herbie made a noise resembling an old steam train gathering itself up for the first chug from a station. “So? He was Jewish, no? You ever read his life story? That amazing thing he did after World War II. The concert at Belsen, the Nazi death camp? That incredible concert? Ach, who the hell cares, anyway?”
“We do, Herb.” Arthur Railton’s face showed that he was not joking.
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