A Proper Little Charlie: A Charlie Bellman Story
Antonia T. Tiger
a short time after the events of "A Funeral in Berlin"
Saunders was going home, and Bellman envied him. Train from Berlin to the Hook of Holland, ferry to Harwich (LNER for the past eleven years), and then train again across Essex to London. It was a long trip and, despite the Nazi claims, the German trains were not all that comfortable. But Bellman envied him, because he was going home. Home to England, and away from a Germany where anyone might be an informer for the Gestapo.
As diplomats, Bellman and Saunders were supposed to be safe. For a hundred and twenty years there had been rules. And, as spies, working under the cover of Consular Officers, and supposed not to be spying on Germany, they should have been safe. At worst, they would be sent home, persona non grata, but the Gestapo could be enthusiastic. They would take their time checking a claim.
“Be careful”, said Saunders.
Bellman smiled slightly. “The coffee isn't the same in England.”
“You always say the best coffee is at that place in Peshawar.”
“Well, it is, but it's not the same. Maybe it's just that it was the first place I had proper coffee. No chicory. Properly brewed. And they're people who cared about getting it right.”
Saunders rolled his eyes. “Bloody Indian Army!”
“We kept the peace, most of the the time. We smote the ungodly, sometimes.”
Saunders leaned out of the carriage window, and glanced up and down the train. “Bellman, I don't want to read your obituary. I don't want to hear how those bastards on Prinzalbrechtstraße killed you slowly.”
“Wouldn't be my favourite reading,” conceded Bellman.
Saunders slowly shook his head. “It's not a game.”
Bellman shrugged. “Calling it a game is maybe the only way we can stay sane.” He paused. “Remember to write.”
“I'll be staying with my parents for a while. My mother will be asking questions, again. My father will look a little sad. I'll feel terrible.”
“Ever thought of...”
“It's a crime, remember.”
Bellman shook his head. “They're your parents. And you're not evil. You just...” Bellman hesitated. “We'd be a team, whatever you were. It doesn't matter.”
“Thanks. I know.” A whistle blew. “Goodbye, Charlie.”
“I promise to write, Horace.”
“You find those bastards who killed Arabella.” The train started to move.
“I will,” said Bellman. He stepped back a pace, and watched Saunders as the train slowly picked up speed, with the steadily accelerating beat of exhaust steam. Saunders was a good chap, even if he was gay, or whatever they were calling it now. In this game it could be a dreadful liability, a reason for blackmail. Tell us your secrets, or we make sure you go to jail. Saunders might have done something, once, but, as far as Bellman knew, he was celibate. He admired, from a distance, and seemed as willing to watch a young woman as a young man.
Maybe it was just the craziness of a Public School. He'd talked about some of the things that had happened, more a game of power than anything genuinely sexual, but Bellman would have called it rape.
Saunders didn't disagree. He had been a young man, handsome and whole, in those years after the Great War, and he was unmarried. “Never met the right gal,” he's say, and maybe that was true. And maybe he was one of those men for whom there could never be the right woman. Not that he was poor company. He was a good dancer, and unfailingly polite.
Of course, he was a weasel, long bodied and short-legged, and he had that reputation for savagery. Mostly unwarranted. Bellman knew that, if push came to shove, Saunders would not hesitate to kill, but he knew himself too. He could kill, and sleep well afterwards. He'd been a soldier. Killing came easy, if it was necessary.
He decided to walk back to the Embassy on Wilhelmstraße rather than hail a taxi. No reason. He wouldn't be checking anything his agents might have left, or be trying to shake off a watcher. He just wanted to think. He wanted to keep out of the hothouse for a while. No sneers from the Public School brats who had gone on to Oxford or Cambridge. He was a very ordinary Englishman, a canine mongrel with a very English ancestry, as mixed as the language. He was a product of a Saxon barmaid chatting up a Norman man-at-arms, and of an Anglo-Norse thief mugging a passing stranger in some Yorkshire seaport. Dark fur, and a long muzzle. Ear-tips flopped forward, and a bluish brindling to his fur when the light fell just right.
His father had been a farmworker, and two of his brothers were a Chief Superintendent of Police, and a wealthy Estate Agent who was an Alderman of Doncaster. He'd gone through the war, and ended up with a commission. The King, God Bless Him, had decided he must be a Gentleman, and the sort of all-round good fellow who would lead men in war. And after nearly eight years in India he had come back and become a spy.
Saunders was right. The best cover was to be a good Consular Officer. If that was the job you had on the books, if that was the reason you were supposed to be in the country, you had better do the job. And they'd been good at it. You greased the wheels for the people who wanted to trade. You helped the travellers who were in trouble. You did the job, and Bellman was confident that they had done it well.
And some of the people you helped deserved the trouble they were in. Not Arabella Mackenzie. She was a singer in a cabaret, but, unusually, not a whore. Just a rather good thief, who had, one day, been caught in the wrong place by entirely the wrong people.
Saunders and Bellman had done the paperwork, arranged the funeral, done all the grim work when her body had been found. Except that not all her body had been found. Bellman had seen her performing. And she was one of his agents, sometimes supplying him with photographs of interesting documents. She'd been pretty, an athletic feline with a calico fur pattern and a lean figure.
It didn't much matter that she was one of his agents. Nobody deserved to die like that. Nobody. She had no family, and he and Saunders, with two Kriminalpolzei had been the only mourners. It was a professional duty.
And if he found the men who killed her—Gestapo he knew—he would quite calmly kill them. Not like they'd killed Arabella, but cleanly, and they would be dead. Not because they'd killed his agent, but because they had forfeited any right to live. And, he was beginning to discover, Arabella had been neither their first victim nor their last.
But he wasn't going to be a fool about it. He didn't want to die over it. He didn't want to finish his life dancing on the end of a rope. He'd find the men. And he'd take his chances. But he wouldn't leave a trail. Their only chance would be to kill him first, and he was quietly confident that when that day came he was going to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and out the other side.
And Berlin could be worse, if you could ignore the brown-shirted thugs patrolling the streets, and the signs which told you not to buy at some shops because the owners where Jews. It was a beautiful city, if you didn't notice the red and white and black of the party flags.
Bellman couldn't close his eyes. Every day he was dealing with Jewish families seeking permission to emigrate to England. There had been a university professor who had been promised a job as a servant. And that, Bellman was sure, would save his life. Some mornings, bright and early, he'd passed broken shop windows and a shrivelled corpse on the street outside, and had carefully avoided the thugs who defied the police to arrest them.
Yes, it had been too late, but he had passed by on the other side.
There were days when Bellman was disgusted with himself, but he could take some comfort in every set of papers he signed and stamped, every family he gave the chance of freedom. He could feel good about being English, because so many countries were refusing a refuge for the Jews. His country wasn't wide open, but there were no limits for those who could satisfy the rules, even if some of the jobs might be pretty nominal.
There was a shopkeeper who told him that he wanted to come to England because of the English Channel. He was Bellman's age. He had fought in the war. He had an old soldier's opinion of the French Army, who would barely be able to hold. “You English, you held the line in a foreign country, and you out-fought us. You stopped us, and you held us, and eventually you drove us back. If you fought like that in France, then you will be very devils when Hitler tries to invade England. And he has to get past the Royal Navy. He has to get his soldiers across the sea, not some broad river. And you navy will be coming for the invasion barges until one side or the other is all used up.”
“Very like,” Bellman had agreed.
“That is why I want to come to England. And if Hitler and his thugs come for me, I'll fight for England, and for myself.”
“There's a naturalisation process,” said Bellman. “If there's a war, and you're still German, on paper, it might be difficult.”
“An English prison is still better than a German grave.” He had shrugged. “This is my homeland. Should I give it up for ever?”
“I don't know,” admitted Bellman.
“Would I,” he sometimes asked himself.
Wilhelmstraße was the Berlin equivalent of Whitehall, littered with government offices, and draped in Nazi flags, acres of red and white and black. The British Embassy was the exception, the Union Flag almost invisible by contrast. There were ordinary German Police outside the Embassy, who recognised him, and British soldiers inside the gate. A little bit of England in the middle of Hell? Maybe. A little bit of sanity in the middle of an asylum? Not really. Not by Bellman's standards. Mostly it was a microcosm of triviality, a performance. Saunders was real enough, but neither of them was quite a proper diplomat. They could look as if they belonged, in the sterile formality of a diplomatic reception, but, if Bellman was feeling particularly down, he knew they were half-tamed thugs.
Half-tamed was better than the Brownshirts across the street. Read the history books—not the school ones—and much of it was about taming the thugs. Turn a bandit into an armoured knight, and eventually the sons of his sons would be gentlemen. But you don't start a fight with a true gentleman.
“Sir?” It was the Second Secretary, far from the worst of them. He had an idea of what sometimes needed to be done.
“Saunders caught his train?”
“He's safely on his way, sir.”
“Good. He's well out of this place. You be careful. You made a good team, and without him...”
“I know. Though I never expected to hear the Horst Wessel Lied performed on a ukulele.”
“I think he had too much coffee.”
“I never saw coffee making any difference to Saunders.” Bellman forced a smile. “I'll try not to let things wear me down.”
“Every day, you're saving lives, Just be careful not to bend the rules too obviously.”
“Bend the rules? I'm quite scrupulous.”
The Second Secretary smiled. “I admire your scruples, Mr. Bellman. And if I tried to force you to act against them, you would walk out on us and do what you thought was right.”
“I don't see how I would have a choice, sir.”
“And I'd be a fool to let things get that far,” came the reply.
Bellman didn't really have an answer to that. “It's going to feel strange without Saunders,” he mused.
“A good chap to have around.”
“Any idea where his next post will be?”
“No idea, Bellman. No idea. You might get a letter from some exotic place, perhaps somewhere tropical with semi-clad native maidens. But more likely another boring city.”
“I don't think Berlin is boring, but I wish it were.”
The Second Secretary slowly nodded. “Excitement is an over-rated virtue.”
“Well, to work,” said Bellman with only slightly exaggerated cheerfulness. “If the wicked have not rest, I don't suppose we should slack off.”
“Bellman, you meet some of the ordinary Germans. What do they think of Herr Hitler?”
He thought for a moment. “A lot of them think he's a fine fellow. But people I know, and who know me. They say anyone could be an informer. I'm safe, but there's a feeling that even a friend could be reporting to the Gestapo—the Secret Police—and just talking to me might be awkward.” He paused. “It's going to make some of things we try to watch a bit difficult. The Foreign Office wants to know how people feel, but if they're scared to talk...”
Bellman shrugged. “The old soldiers, they know we outfought them. But that doesn't stop them thinking they were betrayed by the people back home. Communists, and now Jews.”
“Always somebody else. But Herr Hitler say he doesn't want war.”
There was an obvious response to that, and Bellman did not believe Herr Hitler. He's heard the speeches, and his German didn't come out of book-learning. Hitler might mangle the formal syntax and grammar, but it was the oratory of the mob: something the ordinary German responded to with his gut rather than his mind.
Bellman had thought Hitler was dangerous, long before he came to power. And damn what the Foreign office wallahs thought. Hitler might be doing some good, now. He might be making Germany into something that could be respected—the Weimar Republic had hardly been a success—but where was the money coming from? Was Germany prosperous enough to pay for the rearmament? They had to spend money to get out of the Depression, but could they pay the bills when they came due?
“I know that look. Stick to your consular duties. You're doing something worthwhile there. I've seen those families too.” The Second Secretary paused, and glanced from side to side. “They call what you're doing a mitzvah, a sort of deed blessed by God.”
“Laying up pennies in Heaven.”
“Something like that. But don't let the First Secretary catch what you're doing. He's the sort of man who would cheerfully wear a brown shirt. Or black.”
“I'd noticed.” And Bellman, very quietly, wondered if, one day, there might be an unexpected promotion opportunity. No, not that. But, one day... “He dodged the war, didn't he.”
“He was posted to the Embassy in Quito.”
“Saunders was posted to Switzerland. I get the impression that the diplomacy could get lively there.”
“So I hear,” agreed the Second Secretary. “So I hear...”
Bellman nodded. Saunders had been a spy even then, and that was why Bellman was only Acting Head of Station. “Home,” he said.
“Put in for some leave.”
Bellman shook his head. “You know about my wife. It's isn't the same for me.”
“Oh, of course. Sorry, old chap.”
“Nothing anyone can do,” murmured Bellman. “Nothing anyone can do.” He turned away and walked along the corridor towards his office. It would feel empty without Saunders there. And who, he wondered, would the Brigadier send as a replacement? No hurry, had been the word from London. Berlin was becoming a place you spied on, not a place you spied from.
And it was getting dangerous. The game would have to be played by different rules, when anyone might be an informer, and a suspect might be tortured. What would be next, he wondered. Would an agent arrange to meet his controller at the border, and a bunch of Sicherheitsdienst thugs come storming across the frontier with guns blazing. Somehow, it didn't seem crazy for a Germany run by people who didn't care about the proper way to do things.
He unlocked the office door, walked in, and sat at his desk. Saunders' desk was un-naturally neat. All the drawers were empty. No ukulele. No picture calendar from—where was it?—not Hawaii but somewhere out in the Pacific. It had been a nice calendar, if more than a little suggestive, and maybe that was why Saunders had picked it. Camouflage.
It didn't look as fake as the “Strength Through Joy” posters. Even in summer it was hard to imagine women in swimsuits looking quite so happy on the Baltic coast. It was worse than Blackpool.
You wouldn't find pictures like the calendar in Newquay, either, though the summers were warmer there. Maybe southern France? Bellman took a couple of files from a drawer, but he was musing on Devon and Cornwall, and the train from Paddington. It ran through towns such as Maidenhead and Reading. Didcot (change for Oxford) and the Great Western's own railway town of Swindon, and on to Bath and Bristol, before heading south across Somerset to Exeter. And then there were the miles along the coast, sandwiched between red cliffs and the sea, before breaking away inland at Teignmouth. On then to Plymouth, and over Brunel's last bridge across the Tamar into Cornwall.
They even had palm trees in Cornwall. And tin mines and china clay.
A holiday in Cornwall sounded like a very good idea to Bellman.
He looked up, surprised. “Kathy?” He shivered slightly. “Sorry, I was miles away. Yes, tea, and some biscuits. Mr Saunders has...”
“I know, sir.” Mrs. Katherine Simpson knew as much as anyone about what was happening in the Embassy, trundling her tea trolley into almost every office. “If I were not a married woman, I think I might have run off with him to England.”
“I'm sure he would be the perfect gentleman,” answered Bellman.
“Unfortunately.” Kathy sighed. “I told Miss Andrews she'd do better courting Mr. Saunders rather than that German gentleman, but she looked at me as if I didn't know what I was talking about.” She busied herself with Bellman's cup of tea. “I am sure that Mr. Saunders would be a fine husband, but she seemed to think she would be disappointed.”
“Young people today,” said Bellman.
Kathy looked at the door. “Is it true? About Mr. Saunders, I mean?” She hesitated. “Is he, well, one of those?”
“I've never known him do anything like that,” said Bellman. He shrugged. “I trust him.” He considered. “Miss Andrews, I gather, suffers from hormones. Mr. Saunders, I would reckon, does not.”
Kathy grinned. “That's about it.”
Bellman nodded. “I envy Saunders. I envy you.” He didn't have to explain why. “And yet there are people who will say I am lucky to be where I am.”
“You've worked for it, Mr. Bellman. You and Mr. Saunders both. Not like some people.”
She passed Bellman a plate of biscuits, rather fine ones. “I'm going to miss Mr. Saunders.”
“I think he might be missing you. I know I would.”
Kathy smiled. “I'm sure you would, Mr. Bellman. I'm sure you would.”