Sunday, 24 February 2008

Fictional Freakouts: The Old Timer's Table

Ian Marshall fidgeted. He couldn't help it. He hated being in the tuxedo, the bow-tie was strangling him, and the cummerbund was loose, and he wondered what the hell was he doing here.

He had been invited, nay ordered, to attend this little soirée by his supervisor, the man everyone in The Service called Control. The old man said it was just a request, but Marshall knew, Control didn't make requests.

Now Marshall was clad in an ill-fitting tuxedo, waiting at the bar at the Zero-Zero, a club in the Mayfair district. It had been a fairly posh establishment in its day, which Marshall tagged at somewhere in the late 1960s, but it had failed to follow fashion.

"Glad you can make it my lad," said Control, a cigar in one hand, and a gold plated lighter in the other. Control lit the cigar and took a long, drag, savouring the tumour growing goodness of the smoke. "Would you like one, it's a Cuban?"

"No, thank you," replied Marshall. Control was being strangely social this evening. Usually he just passed judgements from behind his desk in the bland little red-brick building behind Whitehall, and wasn't much for chumminess.

"Come along lad," said Control taking Marshall by the arm, "there are some people I'd like you to meet. "We'll have martinis at our table," Control said to the bartender.

Control led Marshall across the main bar of the club to a pair of broad doors lined with leather padding. Control opened the door and nodded at Marshall to go in.

"So," said a man with greying red hair and black framed glasses in a tuxedo that was even more ill fitting than Marshall's. "Is he the new pigeon?" The man's accent was pure cockney.

"Behave Harry," said Control. "This is Ian, he's new to the service, so I thought he should meet some of the old boys." Control then went around the table, introducing Marshall to men referred to only as Harry, Jim, and George.

Jim was devilishly handsome, his hair not going grey like ordinary men, but transforming into spun silver. He looked like his tuxedo was a natural part of his body, and he spoke with an elegant and cultured accent.

George was a short, chubby fellow, with round spectacles, a spherical bald head with a wispy fringe of white hair, and spoke with the gentle tones of the sort of man who taught classes about obscure German writers at some mossy university.

A deck of cards lay in the centre of the green baize table.

"What's the game?" asked Marshall.

"We used to play baccarat," said Jim.

"And he used to always win," said Harry, lighting his own cigar.

"But poker seems to be all the rage these days," said George. "It's just a friendly game."

"The buy in's a fiver," said Harry. "Winner buys everyone a curry."

Marshall plopped a five pound note on the table, and was handed a stack of chips by George.

Jim started shuffling the deck with quick, expert hands.

"So," said Marshall, "are you all in The Service."

"Retired," said Harry, "we were found to be redundant to needs."

"The game isn't the same anymore," said Jim.

"I thought this was Texas Hold'em," said Marshall.

"Nice lad," said Harry, "but dim."

"Ignore Harry," said George, "he's bitter."

"I got a bloody right to be bitter," said Harry. "I worked my arse off and never did get the respect you other two had."

"You did dirty jobs," said George. "They were necessary, but lacking in glory."

"Nothing to feel bad about old boy," said Jim.

"Yeah," said Harry, "just deal the damn cards."

As the game went on, the old men told stories. They left out most of the names, and anything still too classified to talk about among friends. Each one had a different style.

Jim's tales were loaded with high adventure in exotic locations with beautiful women. They were heavy on action and laughs, and always ended with some treacherous plotter meeting his doom. They also all ended with Jim alone.

"You just don't see those kinds of men anymore," said Jim, a note of wistfulness in his voice, almost as if he missed them.

"Yes," said George, "no one could afford to run those kinds of operations anymore. The health insurance for the manpower would be most prohibitive."

Then it was Harry's turn. His stories were darker. Dealing with grubby people in grubby places, usually betraying each other with mad abandon. And somehow Harry always managed to wade through the convoluted mess and come out on top, usually by being the sneakiest one around.

"Dirty jobs done dirt cheap," said Harry, stubbing out his cigar into a cut glass ashtray. "All guts, no glory."

It was George's turn next. His stories were sad by their nature. Betrayal was everywhere. Betrayal of friends, spouses and country. George had to plod through these disasters, both personal and professional, if not to save the day, but at least to keep things from falling apart completely.

The game ended, and Harry won the pot. Then came the curry, which Marshall enjoyed, as well as more stories. Control sat their, savouring his cigars in watchful silence.

It was still dark, even though it was technically morning, when Marshall and control left the club.

"So," said Control. "Did you have a good time?"

"Yes," said Marshall. "The Service has had a lot characters in it."

Control nodded. "They're very different men, but they share one thing in common. They are all alone, and they will die alone. It's a sacrifice men like us make. You're new, so you should ask yourself a question: Are you willing to make that sacrifice?"

Marshall froze.

"You don't have to answer now," said Control as he sauntered down the steps of the clubhouse. "Sleep on it. I'll see you at the office on Monday."



  1. I think I recognized Jim, but who are George and Harry?

  2. I guess you need to read up on spy fiction of the 60s and 70s. ;)