MEET JOHN CAUL
Enjoy this exclusive extract from Rakehell, the first adventure featuring spy John Caul.
A passenger incident
The transit of the Bank-Monument underground train station complex was one of the few things that Becca Harries disliked about London. The underground was a miracle—it made the disparate boroughs of the city accessible to all (Becca being one of those Londoners who believed that the few areas without tube stations were not really part of the city)—and she used it religiously, even though she could certainly afford an Uber. So, it was a deep betrayal when, rather than speeding Becca on her way across the city, the Underground positively got in her way.
Although Bank and Monuments stations appear on Harry Beck’s iconic map of the Underground as separate stations, they are officially one station and commuters are recommended that they use the complex as an interchange for the five Underground, and one Overground, lines which cross there. Usually Becca took other routes, or even left the station at Bank, walking the length of placid King William Street down past the Monument to The Great Fire of London, to re-enter the complex at Monument station.
As she passed a proud sign explaining that over 40 million people passed through the complex each year, Becca could scarcely believe that the compounded misery of so many trudging the weary distance between the two stations did not split the city asunder. She shook her head as, for a moment, she felt sympathy with Stefan Rakehell’s decision to live at sea; no, none of that! She was free and the city was alive.
Today she had no choice but to pass through the station, having arrived on the Docklands Light Railway platform at Bank after a trip to visit a friend in the sleepy East London suburb of Beckton Park.
Becca had observed that there were two types of commuters who used the Underground. Those who walked with their eyes always looking forward, to whom the other passengers were nothing more than moving obstacles to be kept away from; and those who looked intently at the people passing them by in the opposite direction. They were the ones who looked wistfully at the faces of those on the descending escalator, as they themselves rose; potential lovers or friends passing once and never again amongst the erratic motion of all those millions of Londoners.
Becca herself was closest in attitude to those romantics, but her interest was not so much in the people, as in what they carried. She was interested in clothes, yes, and handbags, of course. Jewels less so—too hard to track down even if you could tell you liked them. A woman carrying flowers was a puzzle to be poured over. What was in vogue, what was not, who looked happy with the things they owned. But most of all Becca was interested in shopping bags; shiny bags with string handles bearing the logos of department stores and fashion brands: Harrods, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Bottega Veneta. A woman in a Liberty print facemask strolled past and Becca was sure there was the light of recognition in the woman’s eyes, as if suddenly seeing in Becca a long lost friend.
Today she noticed a few new fashions—peasant style dresses were in again she saw—and one or two new brands. She would have to spend some quality time with Vogue and Tatler this evening catching up on things; she'd been kept out of circulation for too long by Stefan Rakehell and his annoyingly reclusive habits. Oh, she'd shopped; in ports all over the globe she'd shopped. But you can't really get the pulse of a place in a day and what's the point in spying out the local fashion tropes when you'd be in Paris one day and Florence the next? Within a few miles of coastline everything would change; in Paris yellow was in, in Florence brown, Venice green, Barcelona black. Oh well, all that was over now. She didn't let it get her down. Affairs ended. You painted on a smile and moved on. If you could put a spring in your step all the better, soon you'd find another adventure.
On the Circle line platform, she checked the overhead LED display. The next train was for Ealing Broadway in one minute's time. Perfect. She'd stop off in Bond Street for an hour or two, check out the high fashion stores, maybe lunch a little at Suze in Mayfair. Then she'd head on home to Notting Hill to drink rosé wine and make plans for the next stage of her life.
The platform was busy with tourist groups and businessmen. Amongst them the tall, Italianate man in the three-piece herringbone suit stood out as he moved down the platform, looking for the quietest place to stand, guessing where the doors might be when the train stopped. He was handsome, in a rather pinched sort of way. His hair was wet looking and he had something of a shadow on his face, which he probably cultivated by choosing to shave at night rather than in the morning. But he wore gloves to protect him from the filth of the Underground stations. That was that then. He would be too prissy to be really interesting to her; she'd learnt her lesson with Rakehell, whose meticulous personal habits she still suspected of concealing some sort of fruitiness.
Still, when he stopped at her shoulder and turned to face the tracks Becca shivered a little. The train would be packed. They would have to stand close together in the carriage. What always these days felt a little dangerous, now had a different kind of frisson. He was rather well turned out; perhaps he'd do for practice at least.
Even now he stood so very close to her. Was that him touching at the small of her back? With what, a hand? No, probably just his newspaper sticking out.
The crowd shuffled forward towards the yellow safety line near the edge of the platform and Becca looked instinctively up at the announcement sign, which now read “STAND BACK. TRAIN APPROACHING.” The man was standing almost directly behind her. Was it his breath she felt on the nape of her neck or the displacement of air by the train that was even now pulling into the station?
The man was definitely pressing against her now. Was the crowd really so packed on the platform? Becca started to turn to look but she was being propelled forward now, his body scooping her slighter frame. Her feet were over the yellow safety line. Suddenly there was an unmistakable push on her back below the shoulder blades and she brought her hands up to stop her fall but there was nothing to grasp unless she could turn and there was no time or space to do so before she tumbled off the platform and onto the tracks in front of the slowing train.
Goro Guerra was already turning and leaving the platform as the cries and panic broke out behind him. He heard an English voice exclaim “My god!” and another, a Russian, say “Bojemoi!” and then he was on the stairs leading towards the main passageway and the exit. He reflexively reached up to his silk cravat tie, and pulled it up to cover his mouth and nose. He was not truly fearful of infections, but it would disguise his presence as it had on his way to the platform. As he passed through the electronic exit gate a casual, monotonous voice spoke over the public address system intoning, “Delays are currently occurring on the westbound Circle line. The platform has been closed until further notice due to a passenger incident on the line.”
As many as twenty million citizens of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland experience hypnotism every day. Technically it is self-hypnosis, the unconscious process that allows us to perform common tasks without having to focus. Most of us have had the experience of driving for a long time, unconscious of making specific decisions, and finding ourselves at our destination without any memory of the route by which we got there.
That is not how John Caul drives. He was fully alive as he drove down twisty English country lanes; cognizant of every flick of the wrist which threw him into another blind bend; intently focused on picking out the faint sounds of oncoming cars, the only warning that the bend might conceal his doom.
John Caul’s car was not what most people would consider a practical car, but fortunately the British secret service, to which Caul belonged, had pool cars that were. Caul’s car was a 1974 Bristol 411 in peacock blue with a very rare electric metal sunroof. The car had a modern, more economical V8 engine fitted by Bristol in 1987 but otherwise was a cherished example of the elegant coupe from Britain’s one time most exclusive car marque. The car was often described as old-fashioned in appearance but to Caul’s mind it was the most beautiful of man’s creations, since its looks were the result of aerodynamics.
It was an idiosyncratic car, which Caul regarded as an important part of his identity, even though he had not chosen the car himself but had inherited it from a colleague and close friend who had died in ‘20. He drove it until he felt truly alive, his face in the wind, sitting low down almost on the road where the feeling of raw speed was exhilarating.
The challenge of driving the Bristol pushed all but the hardest and purest of thoughts from Caul’s mind, leaving only the Caul who hurtled from one instant to the next inches behind an engine capable of race car speeds.
The road dipped and the Bristol almost flew, despite the road hugging downforce of its curves. Caul changed down the gears, sliding into a tight corner, then double declutched for a perfectly smooth, rev matched gear change, and accelerated hard again.
Caul had thought long and hard about the attitudes which took him into these dangerous, sublime moments, and was entirely confident that, appearances to the contrary, he did not have a death wish. He was not one of the ones who could not cope with the reality of death, invisible and implacable, waiting around the corner. Rather, he characterized the impulse as his ‘edge wish’, the burning desire to find out where the limits of being John Caul might be so that he could look back from that edge and see himself as from a distance, un-blinkered and unflinching under his own regard.
That wish, once self-discovered, became in Caul’s mind the explanation for everything. His choice of early military career, his obsessive studies of languages, and of the people who spoke them, his exotic and over refined tastes. He simply sought the edges of things and it was no contradiction, when seen from that vantage, that one day he might be swept up in the decadence of drink, cards, and women, and the next drive himself to extreme lengths of physical endurance in the gym or circling the deep track he had worn around his home’s acre perimeter.
Caul would not have enjoyed reading the reports that sat at that very moment on his superiors’ desks, which clearly said that he was ‘all washed up’.
The wrong man for the job
“Tell me again about the girl,” said the commander in chief of SIS, who, like all his predecessors before him was known within the service not by his given name, but only as “C.”
“SH,” the chief of SIS section-C was used to this behaviour C, who was more than capable of acting decisively on issues that might change the fate of a nation, had a tendency to act like a dog worrying at a bone whenever section-C proposed a job.
That was natural, thought SH. Section-C’s sphere of activity was oblique even by the standards of the intelligence community. It existed to perform a category of mission that fell outside the remit of the other sections. At extremes this meant acting against Britain’s allies, assassination of targets political or military, acts criminal or necessarily deniable and, ultimately, mostly extra-legal.
The C in section-C variously stood for Closed, for the section was kept apart from other SIS functions, or Complications, depending on whom you asked. Along with section-D it was one of only two sections of the SIS referred to by a letter, the others being designated with roman numerals from I to X. Generally, the existence of a Section-C was denied, even within Whitehall.
The SIS, or Secret Information Service has a long and honourable tradition. Formed in 1909 as part of the Secret Service Bureau by the Committee of Imperial Defence it was SIS agents at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park who cracked the German Enigma code machine. During the Cold War SIS ran operations of a predominantly political nature, gradually transitioning after the fall of the Berlin Wall to focus on terrorism, weapons anti-proliferation and international crime.
Known today most commonly as MI6, the SIS provides His or Her Majesty’s Government with a global covert capability to protect both Britain’s national security and economic well-being. The SIS offices are an imposing London landmark, located at Vauxhall Cross in London, and sometimes known as ‘Legoland’ due to the building’s distinctive shape.
Section-C of the SIS was formed in the post war years as an offshoot of SIS Section 'V' (five) which was responsible for offensive counterintelligence. It was kept apart from the other, numerically designated sections in order to allow it to act against rogue SIS agents and other allies if required. Changes in the political landscape gradually resulted in Section-C’s primary functions being subsumed into other SIS sections, in particular Section-D, which had during World War II focused on paramilitary covert action under the name SOE, or Special Operations Executive, made famous by its operational directive to “Set Europe Ablaze!”
“Her name was Rebecca Harries,” said SH, “Known to friends as Becca. Not much in her file apart from a connection with Stefan Rakehell; seen with him a couple of times over the summer, which is about as often as he’s been seen at all. She died in an accident last Monday at Monument Underground station. Lots of witnesses, no reports of anything suspicious, CCTV shows a crowd – just seemed to fall. Didn’t faint though as there are reports she cried out as she fell. Ruled an accident, not suicide. Friends say she’d split with Rakehell a few weeks previously.”
“So why is she important?” cut in C. “A professional mistress has an accident. No reason to suspect foul play. Even if this were a murder it wouldn’t be our problem.”
“There were one or two comments in the police files from her friends. In particular it seems she’d spent the night at a girlfriend’s place, got a bit tight. Started on about Rakehell. It’s not like she said he beat her or anything, but she seemed physically frightened of him according to the friend and glad to have gotten away. Seems he cut her loose but there was some mess or other involved.
“Anyway, the girl intimated to this friend that she had something on Rakehell. Something only she knew and she’d already priced this info up on the open market. Figured if she failed to land on her feet in London she could sell up her info to tide her over. Only thing stopping her selling right then was this fear; came out with the usual guff about ‘no one knowing what he’s capable of’. Next thing she’s dead.”
“Right,” said C. “Probably come to nothing but the connection with Rakehell is tantalising.”
“There’s a bit more to it than that sir,” said SH. “She’s not the first of his ex-girlfriends to become a bit unfortunate. A couple of years back one plain vanished. Didn’t even make the papers but police got a report from a friend that she’d gone and the Rakehell connection meant it got added to the file. I don’t believe he was questioned.”
“Ah,” said C. “The man owns very significant tranches of our media and internet, as well as his automated logistics businesses and this space nonsense he’s got a bee in his bonnet about. Plus, he’s becoming a bit of a Howard Hughes type, very reclusive. He took ‘20 to heart and has limited his social contact since. Seems to be something of a meddler though–if there’s a weak spot in government policy his papers and blogs are all over it. Drove everyone potty over Brexit, without ever really taking a side. Seemed almost celebratory about the government shit-show that was the Covid-19 response. Opinions are all over the place; just seems to like stirring it. No obvious agenda except trouble, which I guess sells papers or clicks or whatever it is.
“If there’s any chance he’s dirty we’d like to know. And like you say; bit of a coincidence–one vanishing, one having a fall in front of a train. Always worth having something on his type and we’ve got very little right now. But why is this something for Section-C?”
“ Frankly sir, no one else seems interested in it.”
“It all seems a bit indirect for you chaps, that’s all. Not trying to branch out into Section-D’s territory, are you?”
“Not at all sir. But I have an officer, just had a hard job. Very hard, and he’s had a run of them like that. I’m rather afraid he’s becoming a bit set in his ways. If I don’t get him to try something a little more subtle he’ll lose the faculty for it, and I don’t need men like that. With the staffing levels we have now sir, I need my men well-rounded.”
“Indeed. Well we’re not here to talk about recruitment again.” C sat back in his King George wingback chair and crossed his arms. “Teaching him to be diplomatic, eh?”
“Maybe not too diplomatic sir. I don’t think Rakehell is the type to give much away unless he has a little push. If I tell my chap to tread as softly as he can he’ll probably still end up making a mortal enemy of the man.”
“And that’s your idea of selling this to me?”
“Best I can do sir.”
“Alright. Who’s your man?”
“John Caul,” SH said.
“Really? You think he can be salvaged then.”
“Yes, I think so sir.”
“I read his latest case report this morning. When you asked him to send a message to our friends at the embassy on Charles Street about not dismembering their dissidents in the heart of London did you expect he was going to go down there to get a visa and walk out having assassinated their chief of security?”
“The man was a butcher sir. The literal meat-cleaver wielding sort.”
“Caul’s last full assessment seemed to think he was retireable,” C said. “The phrase borderline sociopath was used in the summary I believe.”
“These things are subjective. He may just be a bastard, sir.”
“Fine. Send him off to have a poke around. But please make it quite clear that, section-C job or not, this is not to turn into a complication. Is that understood?”
“Absolutely sir. I’m sure he’ll understand.”