Brian Freemantle: Dead Men Living

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Brian Freemantle Dead Men Living
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    Dead Men Living
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Brian Freemantle


Dead Men Living

Knowledge Itself is Power.

-“Of Heresies,” Meditationes Sacrae, Francis Bacon

1

The El Nino-Christ’s Child-gets its name from always beginning in December, usually in a seven-year cycle, and reverses the equatorial winds to blow west to east across the Pacific. But there was nothing benevolent about the worldwide climatic upheaval Christ’s Child caused that year.

The heavy storms that followed the wind-driven warm water washing up against the coasts of North and South America caused deserts to flood and rain-denied rain forests to wither.

Drought parched Southeast Asia and smoke from fires that engulfed Indonesia blocked out the sun and plunged the country into near-darkness for weeks. There was so little water in the lakes and rivers feeding the Panama Canal that ship size had to be restricted. Raging torrents destroyed roads and railways in Kenya and Tanzania and Uganda, and rainstorms caused more than $1 billion of damage in California. For weeks temperatures of more than one hundred degrees seared Texas. Scores of people died from heatstroke. Forest fires engulfed Florida. Canada was paralyzed by ice storms.

Siberia was also hugely affected. Tundra permanently frozen so hard that houses were built without foundations melted, in places reducing entire villages to collapsing matchwood. The thaw was particularly pronounced around Yakutsk.

It was returning home to the tiny township of Kiriyestyakh from a supply-buying trip to Yakutsk that a reindeer herder found the bodies. Had he not been on horseback-denied the more customary use of the sled the animal normally pulled-he might not have seen the upthrust, hand-clenched arm: as it was, his first impression was of a tree branch.

He was too young to have known the Great Patriotic War, although his grandfather had been killed on the eastern front and his father had lost an arm in the battle of Stalingrad. But the until now perfectly preserving ice tomb had collapsed sufficiently for him torecognize that both corpses were dressed in military uniform. Neither uniform looked like those he’d seen in any photographs of his grandfather or father. His initial impulse was to loot the bodies of whatever valuables there might be, but Siberia is the most superstitious of any Russian region and to grave-rob risked the Evil Eye. Instead he remounted his horse and hurried on to Kiriyestyakh, to report his find.

2

Although, after all he’d seen and endured and done, it would have been impossible for Charlie Muffin to believe in God, it had seemed divine intervention when he, of all operatives, got the first-time Moscow posting in the department’s anxiety to justify its continued existence by becoming a quasi-British FBI after the supposed end of the Cold War.

Maybe, despite being a disbeliever, he had believed it was something like that, so quickly had he again come into contact with Natalia-and seen their daughter for the first time-and imagined she’d so easily forget all the hurt and all the deceit. The fact that she’d resumed their affair at all was little short of a miracle; that she was here, with Sasha, in his apartment, even more miraculous. Second thoughts-and third thoughts and fourth thoughts-were inevitable. He had, every time, convincingly allayed them, as convincingly as he’d persuaded her to move into Lesnaya Ulitza. Although, Charlie accepted, Natalia had hardly moved in. The belated doubt had come even before she’d unpacked.

“This is ridiculous! A mistake!”

“You’re here now. Let’s just give it a chance.”

“We can’t afford chances. Not one.” She shook her head distractedly. “I can’t conceive that I’m here: that I agreed to it.”

Neither, in all but rare honesty, could Charlie. He’d even phrased the initial suggestion in a way that he could have dismissed it as a joke, although deep down it hadn’t been. “It’s not like the old days. We don’t even have a concierge to inform on us. And you’re keepingLeninskaya on: officially that’s still where you and Sasha live.”

“Which will be meaningless, if we’re discovered.” Why didn’t she tell him of the threat she thought herself to be under, despite so much of it personally involving him? Too much to think about; too much-too fast-of everything.

“I love you,” declared Charlie solemnly. “Sasha is my daughter. I’m in Moscow permanently now. Officially. It doesn’t make sense for us to go on living apart.”

“It does if you really intend us to make some sort of life. If our being together comes out, you’ll be withdrawn and I’ll probably be dismissed, and then what’s left?”

“London.”

Natalia shook her head. “I was prepared to make that sacrifice once, remember? Risked imprisonment-worse, maybe, because I was officially in the KGB then-to get myself to London, expecting you to meet your side of the bargain. All you had to do was meet me, arrange my defection. But you backed off-abandoned me because you weren’t sure. Which, in one very important way, I’m glad about now. I was so much in love with you then that I forgot I was Russian. How much being Russian means, which no one who isn’t can ever understand. Leaving Russia-coming to London and bringing Sasha to London-is the very last thing I want to do. Which I’d ever consider doing, which has nothing whatsoever to do with how I feel about you and about us. I’ll do everything I can to avoid it.”

Charlie felt abruptly hollowed out and it was several moments before he replied. As he did so, he gestured around the huge room in which they were and the apartment beyond. “If you’re telling me that you’re not sure any longer, then I agree. This doesn’t make sense. Nothing does.”

“I’m telling you I’ve got to make up my mind whether I am or not. I thought moving in might be a way of my finding out; thought too much about what seemed my biggest problem and not enough about what others could be caused by my being here. Which was stupid.”

They were talking English. Sasha, who was five, said impatiently, “What are you talking about?”

In Russian, Charlie said, “I was telling Mummy how much I love you and how pleased I am that you’re here.”

“Did princesses really live here once?” asked the child, craning her neck in awe.

“All the time. And now another one is going to. You.”

“I want to see!” demanded the child.

Charlie got up almost too quickly to take the child’s hand, glad of the escape from a conversation he didn’t want to have. The Lesnaya apartment extended over a quarter of an entire floor of what had been, in 1915, the fifth story of one of the grandest Moscow palace-mansions of a cousin prince of the last tsar. Legends had it, as legends often do, that Tsar Nicholas had not once but several times slept there, although not in the guest rooms on Charlie’s level. Rasputin, at the time caring for Nicholas’s hemophiliac son, Tsarevich Alexei, had been on Charlie’s floor, according to the same fable, but again not in any of the rooms in which Charlie lived.

Everything was echoingly enormous, following the principle that the specially chosen and therefore exalted rulers of others had to reside in surroundings built for giants. Charlie liked the leader-of-men imagery. The ceiling of the main room was high enough to have formed scaffolding for a tired moon. There was a huge Venetian mirror over an ornately carved mantelpiece, its cavorting cherubs climbing a bas relief to the faraway corniced and molded ceiling. In the main room, more a reception salon, there were three verandaed and velvet-draped windows, stretching the entire height from that ceiling to the deeply carpeted floor, and although a hodgepodge of style and period, all the furniture was of the highest and most comfortable quality, apart from some of the pieces-particularly two couches-that appeared from their pattern fade and some wear to date from the house’s original occupant.

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