A taster for, Extra Sensory Spy
Book opening: Agent Zwaard Calls
It was a winter’s evening, cold and still. From the study window of his ground floor Gower Street flat in the heart of Bloomsbury, Bertram stood looking out across the barren and leafless vista. Visible from behind the high brick garden wall were mature trees, denuded of leaf during these bitter winter months. Their branches, and those of Bertram’s own few small trees dotted here and there, were silhouetted by the yellow lights illuminating Ridgmount Gardens and Torrington Place. As Bertram’s gaze moved, a thick crust of hoar frost covering everything, sparkled.
“Bloody Hell it’s cold out there,” he said, shuddering, as he pulled the curtains closed with a tug. Throwing a few more coals on the fire, he snuggled up on the couch with Gertrude, the love of his life. They were doing what we all do on evenings like this, keeping warm, watching the telly and munching on a bar or two of Green & Black’s organic chocolate. Later, as an emergency measure, thick Spanish hot chocolate would be spooned from the cup into eager mouths, in order to keep the cold out when they retired to bed. Bertram and Gertrude were allowing a bottle of Saint-Émilion to breathe, one of a few that Tarquin, his only chum and colleague at The Ministry, had given them. The cork and the corkscrew lay on the tray, whilst the bottle and glasses basked in front of the fire. Not too close, but close enough for some warmth to insinuate itself into the wine as it slowly mingled with the air, allowing its flavour to soften and mellow. Tarquers, as he had become affectionately known, had bought in a dozen cases to prop-up his cellar. The Saint-Émilion was for immediate consumption, which eased off on the pressure to break into the more important wines that had been laid down for a future date.
Bertram was in harmonious mood due, in the main, to a previous bottle of the full bodied red Bordeaux, complete with its confident and forthright bouquet. A little earlier that evening he had adequately extricated himself from a bit of difficulty regarding Gertrude’s sister, Agnes, and the bed in which he and she had both been found by none other than Gertrude herself, in that very room. The explanation he had given was both truthful and, more importantly, believed by Gertrude and was, he thought, the last obstacle between him and a happy marriage. Being found in bed with his future sister-in-law was always going to be a source of turbulence beneath the smooth flowing waters of marital bliss had it not been resolved to Gertrude’s satisfaction. It had all been a terrible calamity but luckily, not one made by Bertram, as he had been sound asleep and comatose after a snootful, when said sister had climbed into bed with him, mistaking him for her boyfriend. He had remained unconscious to the world until the next morning, when he had awakened with a start on feeling someone unexpectedly grab hold of Little Bertram, in all his morning glory. He still shuddered on remembering Agnes’ rendition of the child’s nursery rhyme, “Hickory – dickory – dock. The mouse ran up the cock…” It was at that point in the poetry recital that Gertrude had walked in and screamed the house down.
The phone rang and Bertram struggled up from the well-worn leather couch, answered it and smiled. “Hello, old chap! How lovely to hear from you. We’ve just written your invitation to our wedding. What’s afoot?” Covering the mouthpiece, he turned to Gertrude and whispered, “It’s Zwaard!”
Zwaard was the code name for their friend, the head sherang or Hoofdcommissaris of the Amsterdam division of the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service, otherwise known as the Secret Service. Gertrude couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation and could only guess at what their friend in The Netherlands was saying.
Bertram continued, “My goodness! But… but he’s such a decent chap. He would never do such a thing! How has this come about?… Oh, of course. Walls have ears… Yes, I understand. You can fill us in when we arrive. I’ll phone for some tickets in the morning, then… Oh, by courier? That’s awfully decent of you, old boy… Car waiting at the airport… 19:30 hours… p.m… evening time. We’ll speak then. Okay Wouter-Zwaard, old chap. Keep your chin elevated at all times! Do not fear, we will be with you tomorrow.”
“What’s happening, Bertie dear? That didn’t sound good. Are we going to Amsterdam?”
“Yes, my dear, we are. Post-haste. Young Agent Dolk has gone and got himself into a spot of bother. He’s been accused of murder and they’ve suspended him from duty! By the sound of it, their Minister is masking his disconsolation by performing some chipper little back-flips of triumph. Reading between the lines, it looks like Agent Zwaard is going to be next if we don’t do something to help them.”
“That Minister is completely off his onion! I’ll get the bags packed. Be a dear, phone Mrs. Creevy next door and ask her to feed the cats while we’re away. Sir Binky, Mr. Patch and Master Henry will need someone to come in and read them an uplifting story each evening. We’ll leave the heating on for them during this cold snap. It’ll also help to stop the pipes freezing.”
“Oh, ah, yes, the pipes…” said Bertram, as he tried to weigh the cost of what he considered to be an unnecessary burden on his gas bill against the cost of repairing a burst pipe. He could not understand why Gertrude wanted both the central heating to be switched on and to have a coal fire as well. Apparently it was something to do with visual focal points and the beneficial effect that sitting around a fire has on the human psyche, a hang-over from our caveman days. But, thought Bertram, cavemen didn’t have to pay gas bills, did they?
“Bertie, dear, I know what you’re thinking. Remember that you are on expenses in Amsterdam, so there is absolutely no additional cost in leaving the heating running for the cats. Do try and stop being such a tight arse. If you remember our discussion of yesterday, where I outlined areas of your life in which I can see room for improvement? Well, this is one of them!”
“I’m sorry, dear, I must have forgotten that one. There was such an abundance of them…” Bertram picked up the phone and called Mrs. Creevy, wondering how his beloved could identify so many areas of his life in which he could be improved. There were far too many to be attributed to one man in just five and a half decades of ambling around this mortal coil.
. . .
Gertrude had two cases packed within the hour and was wheeling them into the hall when there was a knock at the front door. She answered it and a bustling Mrs. Creevy entered. “I was out in the back garden making sure that my bees were snug and warm in this nasty, cold weather. I’ve put extra insulation around the hive and given them some nice sugar-syrup in case they get hungry. They’ll need the extra energy in this cold.”
“Thanks for calling around Mrs. Creevy, we’re most grateful. I’m afraid that Bertie’s business commitment is likely to be a little open-ended. We really have no idea how long we’ll be away in Amsterdam.”
“That’s not a worry, my dear, as I’m not going anywhere for the next few months. When the boys run out of food, I’ll just add it on to my shopping list and we’ll settle up when you return. Now, where are the little rascals?”
They went through to the living room where, lying right in front of the fire next to the wine, were three somnolent cats. There was Sir Binky, an all-black retired gentlecat of some standing amongst the local feline community: Patch, a ginger chap who was as loving as a cat could be to his staff; and Henry, a very private black and white confirmed bachelor type of chap, who seemingly couldn’t quite get up-to-speed with current events. Mrs. Creevy fussed over them lovingly, “Don’t you worry now, boys, I’ll be in twice a day to prepare your meals and I’ll read you the latest in the adventures of Sir Humphrey, the Downing Street Cat, during the evenings. You like to hear about him.”
“Knowing this lot, they probably knew him personally,” smiled Gertrude.
“Well if they hopped on the Northern Line at Goodge Street and got off at Embankment, its just a hop, skip and a jump over to Downing Street, so they very well may have known Sir Humphrey. But of course, he had to move when the Blairs took up residence. Cherie had an allergy, apparently…” She said the last sentence with a disapproving look.
The cats gazed at Mrs. Creevy as though they were thinking, ‘Oh goody, more treats! And a story each evening!’ They remembered well that Mrs. Creevy was a good and reliable source of nice, fishy nibbles and they would be sure to get far more cuddles from her than from Bertram and Gertrude, their usual servants.
After being appraised of current cat food stocks, Mrs. Creevy returned to her home, next door. She was obviously looking forward to spending time with Bertram and Gertrude’s moggies as, like Cherie Blair, her own husband was allergic to cat saliva and sadly they could not have any pusses in their flat. This was a cause of constant frustration in their ageing relationship, as now the passion had dwindled, it needed to be replaced by something else – and what could be better than cats?