A Hard Frost
A frost came in the night and stole my world, and left this changeling for it...
- Cecil Day Lewis
Cambridge University, early December, 1962.
The day was bitter, bitter cold — colder than any I'd remembered from my years spent at Cambridge. Not surprising at all looking back, since this was the year of The Great Freeze. In two weeks time, Arctic winds would blow in from Iceland. By Boxing Day, flakes would be falling as far south as London, leaving a ground cover of snow nearly everywhere until March. At the university itself, the River Cam would freeze solid and students would walk it between colleges as a short-cut to classes all throughout the Lent term.
Of course, this was only early in December, and so the sun still shone in a cloudless blue sky that morning, bright but impotent, offering little comfort in the face of a fierce, biting wind. As I crossed the Front Court of King's College, the remains of the previous night's hard frost crunched under my heels like broken glass.
Unlike the American Ivy League schools, which attempt to mimic the architecture of their British predecessors, Cambridge and Oxford are truly built like medieval castles. At Cambridge, each of the individual colleges is a square, thick-walled fortress built to withstand, both literally and metaphorically, the forces of vulgarity and ignorance. To me, even when I lived there as a student, it always felt otherworldly, out of place and out of time, like something that belonged in a fairytale. When I saw Disneyland for the first time, I couldn't help but wonder if Mr. Disney had been an Oxbridge man.
That day, I was on a mission of sorts, one of those discreet, off-the-books assignments that came along, not often, but now and again. There would be several during the decade of the 1960s; this was my first. My instructions, delivered by Waverly himself in a one-on-one briefing, was to track down Dr. Miles Pembroke, a senior lecturer at King's, and to convince him, by any peaceful means necessary, to take back his latest novel, a spy thriller, scheduled for release the following spring. The publisher was a small press in Boston and the senior editor, apparently a boyhood chum of my superior, had caught the manuscript before it went to galleys.
Delicate negotiation is usually Napoleon's department, but in this case, for reasons that will become clear, I was not only the preferred, but necessary, choice. Indeed, Waverly warned me that not only should Napoleon not be present at my meeting with Pembroke, but he must never know the specific details. Again, when you hear what transpired, you will understand. And so, I left Napoleon awake but groggy in our room at the inn, with plans to meet at a nearby pub for lunch.
The aforementioned manuscript was now wrapped in brown paper tied with cord, and tucked safely inside the briefcase I carried with me that morning. I only needed to browse a chapter or two myself to understand why the editor had been alarmed enough to contact the Old Man.
I did not know Pembroke personally, but I had attended a brilliant lecture he delivered on Paradise Lost while I was still at university. From his dossier, I also learned that he'd been a teaching fellow at Cambridge in the 1930s, then left to work for the SOE and eventually, had been part of the cryptography group at Bletchley Park during the war. He later moved to MI6 when remnants of the SOE were absorbed, but then abruptly left Intelligence work altogether sometime around 1952. The reason given at the time, transcribed from his exit interview which the British reluctantly shared with U.N.C.L.E., was a new marriage, — a marriage that not only ended childless, but apparently lasted less than a year.
After that, Pembroke returned to Cambridge once more to teach 17th century English literature. Over the next decade or so, he'd written two well-received noncommercial books on Milton and a baker's dozen of potboiler mysteries under a pseudonym. The Milton books had provided him, at least for a time, with a minor reputation in academic circles, while the potboilers paid the bills.
When I found him that morning, he was just finishing up a tutorial with a handful of students in his rooms. It was the last day of the Michaelmas term and as the students filed past, they chatted excitedly, seemingly oblivious to the stranger who waited by the door. Pembroke waved me into what passed for a combination parlor and office, then retreated to a further room beyond to shed his gown, leaving me alone to contemplate my surroundings.
I remember that the flat was chilly and smelled strongly of books. This wasn't surprising since the shelves that lined the walls floor to ceiling were stuffed with them, spilling over into carelessly piled, off-kilter stacks. But it wasn't the dry, musty scent of a well-used library, a scent that, along with gun powder, I've always found comfortable and comforting. Rather, it was sour and acidic: the odor of decaying paper, rotting leather, and dried-out glue.
A scratched mahogany table that seated six easily and eight with accommodations dominated the room. Positioned around the edges of a worn Oriental carpet were a few pieces of old furniture: a floor lamp; a loveseat with frayed arms; an end table with an ungainly porcelain lamp, and an overstuffed upholstered wing chair paired with an abused ottoman. On the sideboard, a large bottle of gin occupied a place of honor where, anywhere else, there would have been a vase.
The entire flat had a sad, tawdry quality, a quality I'd recognized elsewhere before and since. This was the residence of an ex-spy; there was no doubt about it. And, although it was an ocean away and worlds apart, two years later, Albert Sully's Manhattan apartment would reek of the same, hollowed-out emptiness, as if all life and purpose had been slowly leeched away.
"So you're from bloody U.N.C.L.E.," Pembroke said when he returned in a tone that told me he'd been expecting a visit from an agent. I nodded and passed him my identification card. "You're Russian," he declared when he read my name. That, clearly, was something he wasn't expecting. He looked up, rheumy-eyed, and asked, "A defector?"
"Not at all," I replied, deliberately allowing my indignation to show. "I am a citizen in good standing of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics."
"GRU. Senior lieutenant, reserve."
"Indeed." Handing back the card, he eyed me warily as if he was no longer feeling quite so sure of himself despite his obvious home turf advantage. "But from U.N.C.L.E.?" he repeated, needing reassurance, hinting that there was some other possibility.
"From Alex Waverly?"
"He's my superior." I gestured toward the love seat. "May I?"
"Please," Pembroke said, granting permission to sit, although he wasn't happy about it. As I slipped off my overcoat and settled in, he literally backed into his easy chair, unwilling to turn his back on me. When I reached for the briefcase, I saw him stiffen slightly. I clicked it open and produced the wrapped manuscript.
"My novel," he said. It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes." I hesitated, not knowing quite how to phrase what should come next. Napoleon would have finessed it; I simply chose the direct approach, diplomacy be damned. "Mr. Waverly respectfully requests that you withdraw this work from publication. He is prepared to reimburse you double the advance."
"A bribe?" Pembroke said, pretending to be scandalized.
"Consider it compensation. We understand that academic salaries, even at Cambridge, tend to be fairly modest and we wouldn't want to cause you any undue hardship."
"I see," he said, unconvinced, and reached for his pipe, taking his time to light it. "But I don't understand what all the fuss is about. After all, it's just bloody fiction — a load of codswallop, a silly lark, not to be taken seriously by anyone."
Of course, he was being disingenuous, and I told him so. "It's true that this is largely fiction, but it's more than that. I don't know where you obtained your information —"
"I have my resources," he offered slyly.
"— But to anyone with a working knowledge of the Intelligence landscape of the 20th century, it's a fairly transparent roman à clef. If it actually sold well, or, like Mr. Fleming's work, was turned into a film, it could threaten some of our senior agents, jeopardize our current operations, and be disastrous for the entire organization."
"Not to mention a personal embarrassment to Alex."
"That, too," I admitted. He smiled in return, pleased with either himself or my candor, I couldn't be certain.
Spies come in all breeds and temperaments, but the majority fall into two general categories: the flamboyant risk takers and the grey men. When the risk takers succeed, they do so spectacularly and when they fail, they seldom survive the flame-out. But it is the grey men who are the real backbone of the business. When they succeed, they end up quietly running the world in top administrative and strategic positions. When they fail, however, they linger on, entombed in boring, mundane lives, resentful and bitter, imagining missed opportunities that never existed. Some are able to take those imaginings and turn them into fantasies of intrigue and espionage for the commercial market. Quite a number of others end up in academia, which has a good deal in common with Intelligence when you think about it. Information is the life's blood of both professions, where, with a careful teasing out of subtleties and parsing of nuance, facts are chewed over and digested until they eventually become knowledge.
Before he'd been an author and academic, Pembroke was the greyest of grey men and he knew it. Some ten years younger than Waverly, he was perfectly ordinary, an academic out of Central Casting, right down to his tweed jacket and sensible shoes. But for once in his life, he had the upper hand and he knew that, too.
"Alex has become quite full of himself, hasn't he?" Pembroke observed. I'd guessed they knew each other from working for British Intelligence during the war. "Suppose I don't knuckle under to his demand?"
"Demand," he corrected. "A man with that much power does not make requests."
I admit, he had a point.
"So, what then, eh?" He gestured with the stem of his pipe toward the left side of my sports jacket where I carried my Special. "Do you 'off' me right here? Or arrange some sort of accident? An umbrella with a poisoned tip? A fatal whiff of cyanide?"
"U.N.C.L.E. does not sanction assassination," I informed him coolly.
"Then perhaps I'll just disappear."
"That sounds terribly melodramatic."
"Well, apparently, these days, Alex can do anything he chooses to do. Power corrupts and absolute power —"
"So I've heard," I cut in, annoyed by the verbal jousting. It was time to play my trump card. "Perhaps I can sweeten the proposition."
"As I assume you're aware, your old colleague from MI6, Kim Philby, is currently employed as a journalist in Beirut. He's also free-lancing for the British."
At the mention of Philby's name, Pembroke's expression froze, then went deliberately blank as I expected it would. I continued:
"What you may not have heard is that last week, at a cocktail party in Tel Aviv, one Flora Solomon announced to a group of attendees that her friend, Philby, was also working for the Soviets."
That Harold Adrian Russell Philby — known to friends and enemies alike as "Kim" — could be a double agent was not news. The Western intelligence agencies had suspected it for years, but after several interrogations and considerable time, effort, and expense, they still had no concrete proof. Officially, he was out of SIS, but much to the chagrin of the Americans, the British continued to employ him on and off. So, incidentally, did the Soviets.
"The British won't let this pass and no doubt they are, as we speak, planning to reel him in for interrogation," I said, leaning forward for emphasis. "If they do, this time, he's bound to, as the Americans say, 'spill the beans.' All of them."
As he listened, Pembroke puffed on his pipe, not saying a word. Then, finally, he shrugged his shoulders and asked distantly, "So what does this have to do with me?"
Napoleon, if he were present, would have smiled. I didn't.
"Since Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected in 1951, the British have been searching for a "third man" in the Cambridge conspiracy ring. They think it's Philby. But, doctor, you and I both know that there are more than three men involved. Right now, while two of them may be in Moscow — one, by the way, drinking himself to death — the rest are still living and working in the West. The third man is, indeed, Philby, but a fourth is an American novelist; a fifth is in Rome, working for the U.N.; a sixth is conducting research for the British Admiralty; a seventh is the art advisor to the Queen, and — " I paused slightly for dramatic effect "— an eighth is sitting across from me."
There were more double agents I might have named, but there was no need. I'd made my point. Pembroke stared at me, unaware that his mouth was hanging open. The comfort of his pipe was soon abandoned.
"You were an Apostle at Cambridge in the 1920s," I went on. "I expect you were recruited around that time." The Apostles at Cambridge was a secret society akin to the Skull and Bones at Yale. The existence of the society wasn't very secret, but its membership was. Both organizations had long been fertile ground for budding spies and still are. "Or, perhaps, it happened sometime early in the next decade." Which probably was more likely. In the 1930s, of the 7,000 or so undergraduate students at Cambridge, at least a thousand or more were card-carrying socialists.
To his credit, Pembroke didn't try to deny it, but still, it took him more than a minute to recover. "How do you know this?" he asked, resigned, but still holding on to a last shred of dignity.
"I have my resources." And not all of them were U.N.C.L.E.
Which was why Napoleon could not be party to this conversation. He might have felt obligated to pass on the information to the Americans, or conflicted if he did not do so. For me, there was no such conflict.
"Touché," he said with a deep sigh. "I'd wondered why Alex would send a Russian lad like you to me. Now, it's clear."
"You were at Bletchley Park. I've seen the files. I've read Yuri Modin's reports. I know what you did during the war, doctor, and afterward. You resigned from MI6 in 1952 — one year after Burgess and Maclean disappeared. You were involved with their defection as well, offering your place in Paris to them as a safe house. Is that what broke up your marriage?"
He was lost in thought and it took him a moment to answer. "Uh? Ah, no. There were other ... reasons." Based on what my sources gossiped to me, I could guess what they were and let it pass.
Needing a drink, Pembroke rose and walked to the sideboard to pour himself a stiff half tumbler of gin. He didn't even bother to search for tonic. Nor did he offer me any, although I would have declined if he did.
"If Philby is picked up in the next few weeks, he may very well talk," I said, "And this time, you will be implicated."
That was all true, but what I didn't tell Pembroke was that the Soviets were already making plans to rescue Philby and bring him to Moscow, and that the British, to save face, might simply let the troublesome agent go once and for all. In the end, that is indeed what happened. Philby was one of those high flying risk-takers who also tended to be incredibly lucky. That he was also sociable and charming helped, as it did for Napoleon.
Pembroke glanced down at the packaged manuscript, now on the floor between us. "So if I withdraw the book, Alex will keep MI5 off my back?"
I nodded. It would be no large task, really. Compared to the others, Pembroke was a small fish.
"And the Sovs too? They've been dropping me notes, trying to pull me back in. I've been ignoring them."
"This is blackmail, you know."
"Consider it a courtesy. U.N.C.L.E. generally prefers to remain above the petty politics of the Cold War powers, but we'll make an exception in your case."
With another heavy sigh, Pembroke put down his empty gin glass and picked up the manuscript. He fingered the brown paper thoughtfully. "Well, perhaps I'll rewrite it as one of those sword and sorcery fantasies. Evil magicians, dragons, elves and all that rot. I hear there's a market for it."
Then, more seriously, he said, "You know, we didn't do it for money. Or the excitement. We did it because we were afraid the bloody Nazis just might win." He was in earnest now. "There were those who thought Hitler had the right idea — and some were even in the royal family."
"And after the war?"
"Afterward, well, afterward, it was necessary. To keep the world in balance. The Allies had turned all bloody-minded when it was only them that had the bomb. Fascism or Communism, the few or the many. One must choose; there's no in-between. You, of all people, should understand that."
"The British have a democracy," I offered, turning devil's advocate.
"Look around you," he shot back. "Does this bastion of society and privilege strike you as democratic?"
I had to concede it did not. "And what about the Americans?"
"Oh yes, the Americans." Pembroke harrumphed aloud. "The Americans are fascists or socialists as it suits them."
"So, we have an agreement, then?" I asked, changing the subject. I had no desire to debate politics with him. He nodded sullenly and agreed that we did.
My business concluded, I stood and reached for my coat.
"I wanted to escape with Guy and Donald," he said, not ready to let the subject go just yet, "but they said it wasn't possible. So, I was left behind, here, out in the cold." Unexpectedly, he helped me with my coat. "You stay out too long, the frost sets in. It changes you; kills off the bloom of optimistic youth."
Considering the dreariness of the flat and its lack of actual warmth, it seemed an apt metaphor.
"You look back, and you can't recognize who or what you once were. You, Mr. Kuryakin, you're still young, but you'll see," he told me in his professor's voice. "It happens to all of us."
"Perhaps. It may be different working for U.N.C.L.E."
Irritably, he swatted the suggestion away like so many flies. "U.N.C.L.E. — bah. Alex asked me to join, but I'd have none of it ..."
That wasn't quite true, I knew. Pembroke had applied early in 1948 and was rejected. I could guess the reason. Mr. Waverly had no use for former double agents. Treason was like losing one's virginity, he said. Once you did it, the second time was easier and all the more likely.
"...Too many rules. No self-determination."
I was tempted to point out that perhaps it was too much self-determination that got Pembroke into this mess, but I merely quoted Milton: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven?"
"Something like that," Pembroke responded, not quite sure whether I was being sarcastic or not. Obviously relieved that I was leaving, he walked me to the door. "It's harder to betray your friends than your country," he said, in one last attempt to solicit, if not my sympathy, at least my understanding.
"I don't doubt it," I told him sincerely. We shook hands, I wished him good luck, and then I left.
As we planned, Napoleon was waiting for me in the back room of The Eagle on Bene't Street, with two fresh pints. I knew the pub well from my graduate student days since it was located within walking distance of the Cavendish Laboratory. In fact, nearly ten years before, Francis Crick had apparently arrived during one lunchtime and announced that he and James Watson had discovered "the secret of life."
There didn't seem to be such distinguished company among this noontime clientele and with the term ended, the place was half empty.
"How did your little errand for Waverly go?" Napoleon asked.
"Good." He knew not to question me further. Instead, he pushed a glass of stout into my waiting hand and gave it a click with his own in a quick, impromptu toast. As I took a sip, the barman signaled that our two plates of fish and chips were ready. Napoleon went to retrieve them.
"A delightful young woman on the wait staff told me this place is haunted," Napoleon observed cheerfully when he returned.
"It's 600 years old," I replied, between bites. I hadn't any breakfast and I was famished. "I wouldn't be surprised."
He looked up at the ceiling over our heads and scanned it. "She also said that RAF pilots used to scrawl their initials and their squadron numbers up there with the smoke from candles and cigarette lighters. It's been plastered over but see —" he pointed "— you can still make out some lettering along the edges."
I looked up briefly, nodded, and then returned to my meal.
"Maybe we should do something like that at HQ," he said, clearly enjoying the idea. "In the commissary, or in one of the back corridors."
"Smoke won't have any effect on steel."
"But knife blades would — we could scratch the names in."
That made me laugh for the first time that day. "Oh, I'm sure Mr. Waverly would have something to say about that."
"Mmmm... but still. It's a good idea."
And as strange as it sounded, I thought it was a good idea, too. Just the sort of thing we U.N.C.L.E. agents did.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pub, drinking and talking, and making plans for the next mission. And though I was doomed to experience my own hard frost, that was still far in the future. That day, I was grateful to simply bask in the warmth of fellowship with Napoleon, and to forget the image of Miles Pembroke, standing in the doorway of his building, alone and friendless, eyes watery and stinging, his face to the frigid wind.