This is from my novel Petrushka set in London in 1907 – about, among other things, Russian secret services operating in Britain, and a relationship between a double agent and his handler. I started writing it in about 2008; it’s based largely on historical events at the turn of the 20th century.
I think I’m posting this particular extract because this strange sad detail jumped out at me from this account of Litvinenko’s death: that his MI6 handler apparently had no idea he was even in hospital with poisoning.
(For Okhrana read FSB, for Special Branch read MI6… you get the gist.)
“…I knew what would happen to Neschastny – to Kyril Voronin.”
Gideon wanted to hold Jeannie’s hand, but he hadn’t had a chance to wash his own, and the last person he’d touched had been a lonely megalomaniac wearing most of his guts on his outside. “When the Okhrana put me on to him last year, yes maybe I thought I’d be doing my bit to protect innocent bystanders from bombs… But I know the Okhrana’s reputation. It wasn’t information they wanted anymore from him. What they wanted was trust.”
By then agent Neschastny had become a liability, likely to break down and confess all. The Okhrana did not want him, and neither did Special Branch once it became clear he had nothing useful to tell about his comrades or his masters. “They just needed him to feel he was still important, still protected – and that was my job. To become his friend.”
Because that was what Gideon Thwaite did. Even when he’d been a regular copper, he hadn’t just moved on vagrants and fished out suicides, had he; he’d made friends with them first. Yorkshireman Thwaite, the maverick joke at Special Branch with his peculiar relationships with riffraff and revolutionists; the even-tempered eccentric no one could help but like.
“And did he?”
“Did he what?”
“Become your friend.”
That was his Jeannie: straight to the point. What was the last thing he had ever said to Neschastny? He had already given the order by then, to call off his men who shadowed the Russian day and night. The Okhrana had made no enquiry about their agent for weeks; the commissioner had blinked his habitual blind eye long enough to ask a pointed question about Thwaite’s interesting assignment of manpower. Thwaite had already known when he had said, mostly reluctantly, “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Don’t get killed, will you.”
“I won’t.” Neschastny had smiled a crooked smile. “I still have one thing left to live for.”
And the man had lied, because he was an informer and what informers do is lie; days later he had got himself killed by a Russian state assassin on British soil in scandalously public fashion.
And did he become your friend?
Gideon stared at his hands. “Yes, he did.”