Here is the first chapter of my espionage thriller set in 1953. Any feedback or comments would be very much appreciated.
I have finished the novel and am at line edit stage.
Thanks in advance.
Chapter One: The Trail Goes Cold
REVENGE. Not even love could stir the same craving in a man’s soul as revenge, and if left unfulfilled, only madness would follow.
It was that descent from sanity that Tom Laing feared was now upon him as he glared out of the hotel window at the Strand below. What made it harder was not being able to visualise the person on whom one wished to carry out the act of retribution. Faceless revenge felt diluted somehow.
Laing’s nostrils twitched at the familiar smell of stale whisky and cigar smoke that clung to every fibre of the room. He took one more swig of the bottle and let it drop to the stained shag carpet. There it settled among the peppering of ash burns.
The day was here again. The 7th of April, the day he dreaded every year. He felt foolish, it was just a date. What was it with the human condition that made us put such prominence on anniversaries?
The Cole Porter record that was her favourite was flipped over for the fifth time. Was it time to go to work? After knocking over an empty Macallan bottle, he picked up a watch that lay on the bedside table, it came back to him that it had stopped working weeks before. He stepped on something. A medal, this one was a tarnished Military Cross. For acts of exemplary gallantry ran through Laing’s head - he didn’t pick it up. On the adjacent bedside table was another watch, this one had been placed back into its box with care and the lid closed. It was a gift from her for leaving the service. The Jaeger Lecoultre displayed that it was 8:31 am.
Laing’s head throbbed, and his mouth was dry. He stared at the chandelier and began to feel regret. Regret and shame at drinking so much and the behaviour that inevitably followed it. “Never again” he lied to himself.
Laing’s room at the Savoy Hotel was relatively modest compared to the more luxurious suites available elsewhere in the historical building. He had successfully solved a simple case for the Savoy Hotel Group, and as part of his compensation, he was able to negotiate a heavily discounted rate with the Chairman, Hugh Wontner. Laing had initially intended to use the hotel as a stopgap after leaving the flat in Knightsbridge that they had shared. But, three years on, he was still there, and their things were still gathering dust in the garage at the Laing family home. The only personal touches were the near-empty whisky bottles and cigar butt-filled ashtrays that adorned the room. It was likely to be the most shambolic hotel room in any five-star hotel in London.
After Laing had showered, he shaved with all the accuracy of a blind man mowing a lawn. He had started using a safety razor recently for fear the cut-throat would become self-fulfilling.
Laing dressed in a grey flannel suit that was cut keenly to his trim frame. He wore it with a crisp white shirt and a thin dark green knitted tie. His shoes had been freshly delivered by room service and the black polished Derby shoes now proudly displayed a deep shine. The shoes reminded him of his inspections during his army days. He ran the sole of each one, over the other until he was content with the scuffing.
Laing opened the window and took in a lungful of polluted London air. It was a grey, overcast morning. His trench coat would be required if the dark clouds carried out on their threat. Finally, he put on his navy Fedora, then adjusted his tie one last time. As he looked in the full-length mirror, the room service-pressed shirt and Saville Row suit could not hide the broken man looking back at him.
As Laing hurried through the hotel, he didn’t want to chance conversation and only risked eye contact with a host of inanimate objects.
His car was a Jaguar XK120 Roadster. He had acquired it from the spoilt son of a wealthy client who had bought it as a plaything and had quickly become bored. They had moved on to yachts or planes or something else equally frivolous. Given the excellent job Laing had done in retrieving some compromising photos of the man and his mistress, he was able to negotiate an attractive price. The car served to remind him of his more fruitful days as a Private Detective.
After turning the key, she fired up. Laing gave the accelerator pedal two big prods. He felt the growl of the exhaust in his frontal lobe. Laing thought about turning off the engine and heading back to bed with a bottle and a box of old photographs. But, he had promised Callahan he wouldn’t.
Laing set off down the Strand and watched two drivers screaming obscenities at each other. He turned into Pall Mall, it was blocked with emergency works. There had been a gas leak, and he had to turn around and take a different route.
This wasn’t the London featured on the tourist postcards, no, this was the real London. The one that looked great after six doubles and a bottle of overpriced claret but when you woke up next to her, her hair looked like ten-thousand volts had passed through it, and her makeup like it had been applied by a six-year-old after too much sugar - real ugly.
A homeless man who smelt of cheap rum asked Laing for a cigarette at the lights on St James Street. He said his name was Bob and that he was a war veteran. Bob’s luck was in, Laing gave him two packs of Player’s that had been left in the glove box by the car’s previous owner. With the bounty in hand and judging by the bottle jutting out of Bob’s coat pocket, he was all set for a great day.
Laing eventually got to Berkeley Square. Business was slow, stationary in fact. It had been over five months since his last case, that had hardly been a taxing affair. A coddled daddy’s girl had run away from home and taken up with some bohemians. A few bribes to loose lips and he found out she was living in a squat in Peckham with some communists. The trouble with downtime was that the boredom led to Laing heavily partaking in his vices of drinking and self-pity. Laing didn’t expect the next job to come from Hammond.
Major Ray Hammond was Laing’s old commanding officer in the SAS. After the war, he had worked his way up the British Secret Service and was now one of the most powerful Spymasters in the Western Hemisphere. It had been over a month since the incident in Tel-Aviv that had led to Laing being struck off the list of Freelancers that MI6 used. Not that they had given him anything of substance for eighteen months prior to that. Hammond would have known the significance of the date, maybe he thought he was doing Laing a favour by arranging a meeting with a prospective client today. He wasn’t.
After parking the Jaguar, Laing walked up the stairs. At the top was a shabby wooden door with a cracked frosted glass window adorned with the words “Nob e Fin ncial Adv sors” in faded gold lettering. An older woman greeted him from behind a dark oak desk, she disguised her pity with admirable skill.
‘Good morning, Mr Laing,’ she said in a soft Welsh accent.
‘Good morning, Mrs Williams. I have told you a hundred times, Tom is fine,’ Laing replied. Her face had a certain feline quality to it.
‘It just wouldn’t be proper. Late night was it?’ she asked, taking his coat and hat as she always did. There was ash on Laing’s hat, she flicked it off indifferently. She had become accustomed to seeing him in this sorry state.
Mrs Meredith Williams had been working as Laing’s secretary for six months after the last one failed to turn up one day without explanation and was never heard from again. Mrs Williams was in her sixties and a religious type, which Laing didn’t mind. But A - she was cheap, as she hadn’t worked for some years and B - she was not too inquisitive. She lived with her cousin, or was it her sister? Laing could never remember.
‘Any messages for me?’ Laing enquired.
‘Yes, your Uncle Arthur called to remind you of your meeting with Mr Kessler at the East India Club today. He asked me to remind you that you are meeting him afterwards at the Ivy.’ Laing didn’t have any living uncles that he knew of, Uncle Arthur was a pseudonym that Hammond used when he wanted to contact Laing. But, as far as Mrs Williams was concerned, he was Laing's favourite and most agreeable uncle.
‘Anything else?’ Laing asked.
‘Yes, Mr Callahan called and requested that you drop in and see him today if convenient. He said you are long overdue a visit.’ She had a point. It had been too long.
‘Thank you, Mrs Williams. Could I have some Irish coffee please?’
‘I will bring in some black coffee,’ she replied.
Laing walked through to his office. It was a simple layout with a threadbare carpet that had small fleur-de-lis stitched into it. He turned on the stereo, his shaking hand aimed the needle with all the precision of a junkie on day two of cold turkey. The sound of Miles Davis' Young Man With a Horn filled the room. Laing sat on his worn green Winchester. There was a knock on the door.
‘Come in, Mrs Williams,’ Laing said quietly while rubbing his temples. Mrs Williams walked in with a hot coffee in one hand and some paperwork in the other. Tucked under her arm were a collection of newspapers.
‘There are some cheques to sign,’ she said as she carefully laid out the newspapers.
‘Thank you,’ Laing said. She turned to leave before stopping at the door
‘Mr Laing, please forgive me for speaking out of turn,’ nothing good ever started with those words, she continued, ‘my Len, he drank too much. But you, you are a young man. Maybe you should cut down a little bit.’ Laing could tell she meant well. Or maybe she was just worried she would be out of a job if he croaked it. Either way, he was not interested in her opinion on such matters, especially today.
‘Thank you, Mrs Williams. That will be all,’ Laing said. Mrs Williams knew by the tone of his voice that there would be no further discussion on the subject. She left the room, gently closing the door behind her. Laing noted the patronising gesture.
Laing opened his humidor and selected a cigar. He cut the end off with a gold-plated Dunhill cutter. He began toasting the foot with his butane lighter while gently rotating the cigar. Satisfied with the ritual, he placed it in his mouth, kicked off his shoes and manoeuvred his long legs onto the desk. He closed his eyes and took a long pull of the cigar. The feeling and flavour of the smoke filling his mouth were like an old friend. Kip Callahan had sent him the same cigars during the war, but today they lacked their usual comfort.
All he needed now was a drink. He reached into the drawer and pulled out a half-empty bottle of Macallan 15-year Fine Oak. Laing went to pour it into the coffee, the smell of which was now wrestling for supremacy with the cigar smoke. He hesitated, he baulked at the thought of wasting it with coffee. With that, Laing took two large gulps from the bottle, the taste made him retch. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a photograph. As he looked at it, a dark thought entered his mind, the same feeling that had haunted him for years felt amplified today. Was the fate of his family in some way his fault? Was there some all-powerful force that was punishing him for all the reprehensible deeds he had done?
He gathered himself and went about signing the cheques. He couldn’t remember spending that much at the East India. After two aborted attempts at landing the nib of the fountain pen on the signature strip, he aborted and placed the cheques in the draw. A job for another day. Laing thumbed through the newspapers. Communists, nuclear weapons, the death of Stalin, communists, the Royal Yacht Britannia, climbing Everest, the Queen’s Coronation, communists. His eyes followed the words, but he absorbed nothing. None of this mattered. Laing’s non-reading was interrupted by the shrill sound of the telephone ringing.
‘Mr Laing, I have a call from a Mr Uri Landau.’ A lump formed in Laing’s throat. It had been over a month since he had any contact with Landau. Maybe, he had uncovered something new.
‘Put him through please.’ Laing gathered himself. ‘Hello.’
‘Hello Tom,’ the voice at the other end of the line said, ‘it’s Uri.’
‘Good to hear from you.’ Laing could tell the feeling wasn’t mutual.
‘Ovitz is dead. Cancer. He died in the early hours of the morning.’ Laing struggled to swallow the whisky he’d just put in his mouth.
‘Good,’ Laing said.
‘He asked me to visit him, he wanted something on the record. He talked me through the all of the shootings, bombings, torturings and killings, in detail. I questioned him again on the Bremont Hotel Bombing. He remains adamant that Irgun had no involvement. He claims some anti-Semite organisation framed them.’
‘Then he’s a lying bastard.’
‘Tom, I believe him. He was an old, sick man and admitted to plenty of other atrocities. All of the evidence we uncovered suggests the same thing. I am convinced that it wasn’t Irgun that bombed the Bremont. I thought you should know.’ After a brief silence, Laing found some words.
‘There must be something we missed,’Laing said with little conviction.
‘There isn’t. I’m sorry.’ Laing felt numb.
‘Thank you for telling me,’ he said.
‘I’ll look you up when I am next in London. And Tom, stay out of Israel. There is a warrant out for your arrest, and I have even heard the word “extradition” being banded around. Not even your powerful friends at MI6 will be able to help you if you step foot here again.’
Laing hung up. He launched the porcelain coffee cup at the wall, it smashed and left a brown coffee bloodstain. His next victim was the telephone. It didn’t yield quite as easily and needed the help of Laing’s foot before spilling its electrical guts.
Uri was just telling him what he already knew. He had been over the facts a thousand times, and he had nothing. No names, no leads, no face to pin on the killer.