Live And Let Spy
Admiralty House, London
Adam Hardacre had long passed the sailors practicing the drills on the parade ground, yet the regimented strike of the marshal’s drum vibrated through the very core of his being.
One, two, dru-um, dru-um, three, four, dru-um, dru-um…
He marched down the magnificent halls of Admiralty House in time to the beat only he could hear.
Attired in boatswain’s dress uniform, he cut an impressive figure.
Six foot tall, clean shaven, sandy hair lightened further still by the sun, face lightly lined by the weather, Hardacre’s quick, thoughtful manner had propelled him from the ranks of able seaman to one of the leading petty officers aboard his ship and, indeed, in the entire service.
Rising to the rank of a petty officer in the Royal Navy would be enough for many men – particularly for ones of uninspiring birth, such as the son of a carpenter from Ponsnowyth in Cornwall – but the world of a petty officer was not enough for Adam Christopher Hardacre.
One, two, dru-um, dru-um, three, four, dru-um, dru-um…
He had passed his examinations, so there could be no possible reason why he should not be elevated to the ranks of the senior officers as lieutenant.
Without conceit, Adam knew he was an exceptional sailor, respected by his bosun’s mates as well as the officers above him. At thirty-six, he was one of the oldest officers to sit for the lieutenant’s examination. That, in and of itself, caused a great deal of stir.
He did not walk alone today. At his side marched his friend and advocate, Lieutenant Harold Bickmore. The fact the twenty-eight year old outranked him, not only on ship, but also in social convention, didn’t matter a bit.
Adam was glad to have Harold at his side. He was nervous. But he’d sooner spit at the devil than admit it.
One, two, dru-um, dru-um, three, four, dru-um, dru-um…
The two men rounded a corner to the final long corridor that would take them to the boardroom.
“Now, remember,” said Harold in a whisper. “This is the final interview before Admiral Stroughton; remember what we rehearsed.”
All Adam could manage was a curt nod. He knew very well it was the final interview. He’d run through it ten times with Harold and he’d run it through his mind a hundred times more. He stretched the fingers that had been gripping the brim of his bosun’s hat, its tall crown painted with the symbol of his ship, the Andromeda.
He marched to a stop before the big, heavy oak doors. Harold watched him intently. Adam ignored him and took a deep breath before raising his gloved hand. He rapped on the door twice before taking half a step back.
The door was opened by another lieutenant, not someone Adam knew.
“Petty Officer Adam Hardacre?”
Adam snapped to attention and crisply saluted.
The lieutenant glanced away and acknowledged Bickmore with a nod befitting their equal rank.
“Follow me gentlemen. The Board will see you now.”
They crossed an anteroom where a dozen other officers worked at desks or pored over maps. Adam didn’t look to the left or to the right, but caught several of the men glancing up at their party out of the corner of his eye.
The escort knocked at the inner door. The hubbub of voices from inside ceased.
The door opened.
Adam waited two beats before complying. It was his habit to do a visual reconnoiter of his surroundings before blundering into anything.
The boardroom was modern, as was Admiralty House itself – just ten years old. The south-facing windows were deeply recessed and flooded the room with natural light. The coffered ceiling above added to the impressive height that such an auspicious space demanded.
The wall facing the windows was lined with books and charts.
But by far, the most impressive feature was at the far end of the room. Dominating the wall was a large clock, about three feet in diameter by Adam’s estimation. It showed the time to be a quarter after two. Below it, fluted Corinthian columns flanked two glass-fronted bookcases and, in the center, stood two large globes, one shelf above another.
Finally, Adam turned his attention to the table in the center of the room, inset with green baize, large enough to seat ten men with ease.
Today there were five. Four Royal Navy officers comprised the board – Admiral Stroughton, two vice-admirals, and a captain. The fifth was a civilian, a man in his late forties, judging by his face.
Adam caught Harold’s eye and detected a slight furrow between his eyes. His friend had obviously had the same thought as he did.
What the hell is a civilian doing here?
“Petty Officer Adam Christopher Hardacre,” the lieutenant announced to the gathering. “Currently serving on the third class frigate, Andromeda.”
Adam smartly stood to attention and kept his eyes on the minute hand slowly making its way down the clock face.
“At ease, Petty Officer Hardacre,” said Admiral Stroughton.
Adam stood with his feet apart.
“Won’t you and your second take a seat?”
“Thank you, sir.”
Adam sat at the end of the table, placing the hat to his left, while Harold took the seat at his right.
The naval officers looked down at the papers before them. Adam could no longer see the civilian. He was at the far end of the table, obscured by the two rear admirals.
Adam squared his shoulders. His life was before each man in those papers. In them, he was certain he would be judged worthy of joining the highest ranks of the Royal Navy.
“You have been with the Royal Navy for twenty years,” continued Admiral Stroughton. “Is that correct, Mr. Hardacre?”
“It is, sir.”
“And before that you were apprenticed to your father as a carpenter. What caused you to enlist at the age of sixteen?”
Adam didn’t want to say he was pressed into the Royal Navy, although forced he most certainly was.
The civilian, who had yet to be introduced, leaned forward. “…Carried away by patriotic fervor?” he offered.
Adam met the man’s look and acknowledged it with one of his own. There was something leonine about the man, predatory – and it wasn’t just his reddish hair, glinting with a few strands of silver that did it either.
“You could say that, sir.”
The admiral riffled through his notes once more. “You worked as a ship’s carpenter apprentice, then promoted to able seaman, leading hand, bosun’s mate, and now bosun. For a man in your situation, you should be very proud of your accomplishments.”
Adam raised his chin.
Yes, he knew what that was code for. Few men outside the noble or moneyed classes aspired to reach beyond what fate had allotted them.
“I am proud, sir. But I know I can offer my country more.”
The civilian leaned in once again. “No wife? No family?”
“None to speak of, sir. I am wedded to the Navy.”
And at that, the man made a note on his report with a pencil and sat back with an air of finality.
This time, Adam did exchange a glance with Bickmore, and it was enough to tell him this was an unusual procedure, indeed.
“I understand, Mr. Hardacre,” said Admiral Stroughton, “that this is not the first time you have sat for the Executive Officer’s examinations.”
Aye, there was the rub.
“Twice prior to this, sir. Each with more than a passing grade. The second result better than the first.”
Again, there was more shuffling of paper at the table.
“In fact,” Adam continued, “last time, I finished second in a class of two hundred officers.”
“Well,” announced one of the vice-admirals, “I’m pleased to inform you, this time, you have finished top of your class. Our congratulations to you, Mr. Hardacre.”
Warmth and pride bloomed in his chest. These men couldn’t possibly refuse his promotion now. He controlled the outward expression of his emotion, a slight flex of his right hand, the one that carried his tattoo, was his only “tell.”
“Thank you, sir,” he answered.
“Indeed, of this year’s crop of candidates, you are certainly among the most outstanding…”
It was subtle, so subtle he almost missed it.
It was a change in the atmosphere as though the barometric pressure had just dropped a couple of bars. At sea, Adam would identify the signs of impending gloom – rain or a storm. The ability ran through his core like a sixth sense. He didn’t need an instrument to tell him what his body told him was true.
He had once saved an entire flotilla of ships off the coast of Barbados with his instinct. He had assumed the role of post-captain and ordered the fleet of British vessels out to sea to ride out a fierce storm that had taken everyone else by surprise. Two days later, only the Andromeda and the two schooners that followed his order were undamaged.
His right hand flexed once more.
Admiral Stroughton sat up straight, pulling his papers together. He gave the civilian a direct look, and closed the cardboard cover. Stroughton looked Adam directly in the eye.
“It is with profound regret that we advise we will not be promoting you to lieutenant.”
The outburst came, fortunately, from Harold, the heat of anger turning the man’s face florid. Adam felt the same emotion, but he pushed it down, down, down until he’d submerged it, mindful of the powder keg of fury in his soul.
The voice of his sixteen-year-old self screamed in his ear.
No! It’s not fair! It’s not right!
“Might I know the reason, sir?” To his own ears, the question had the grumble of distant thunder.
“Your age is a factor for one,” said the vice-admiral.
“And your unfortunate background means you are unlikely to be…” the other vice-admiral looked to his compatriots around the table as if to ask for help in searching for the right word, “…the right fit.”
Now the fuse had been lit. Adam could feel it burning in his gut.
“What my colleague is saying,” added the first vice-admiral, “is that some of the senior officers might find it difficult to accept taking orders from someone who is not their social equal.”
Adam pushed back his chair and rose to his feet.
He would not lose his temper. To do so would only prove the point in their eyes. But by God, it was a struggle.
“Twenty years…” he said through gritted teeth “Twenty years, I’ve willingly given in the service of my country, and now I am to be spat at?”
“Calm down, Mr. Hardacre,” said Admiral Stroughton with a level of indignation as if Adam had thrust himself angrily forward across the table. “Lieutenant Bickmore, as Hardacre’s second, please speak sense to the man—”
Adam sensed rather than saw Harold stand up beside him. But his second said nothing. His silent show of support was welcome right now.
“More than half my life, gentlemen,” Adam continued, “and you all but tell me it is worthless? I risk my life to defend English interests, English principles of justice against the forces of tyranny, and all I ask in return is every Englishman’s right – equality under the law. I do not demand more than I have earned from my own effort, effort which, I might add, appears to have outranked every other officer candidate for lieutenant.”
A hubbub arose of protesting, indignant murmurs from the officers at the table. Of all the men before him, only the civilian did not look offended. Indeed, he looked almost disinterested.
Adam raised his voice but only enough to be heard.
“I will no longer play in a rigged game, sirs! I hereby resign from the Royal Navy, commencing from this very moment.”
He turned on his heel and pushed away his chair with one sweeping motion. The chair teetered unsteadily a moment before righting on its four legs.
Without looking to the left or right, Adam marched out of the door, past the adjutants and down the hall he had strode along filled with hope not twenty minutes before.
He was vaguely aware of Harold behind him, calling his name, but the red mist at the corners of his vision allowed him to only see what was ahead. He was only aware he’d held his breath when he emerged into London’s late afternoon and onto Whitehall.
He crossed the street into Horse Guards Parade, looking for some kind of sanctuary in the gardens of St. James’ Park.
He made it within sight of Buckingham Palace before Harold caught up enough to clamp a hand on his shoulder.
“Let it be, Adam, as a friend.”
Adam slowed and came to a stop.
“There are days when I wonder if it has all been worth it.”
Adam spied a bench being vacated by two pretty young ladies out for a stroll. He made his way toward it and set himself down heavily. Fury roiled in him, so he kept his eyes on two swans gliding serenely on the lake.
“They’ve treated you shabbily, man,” said Harold. “There’s no doubt about that.”
“It’s for the last time,” Adam warned.
Silence stretched out between the two for a length of time until the spell was broken by the peal of bells from Westminster Abbey.
“What are you going to do?”
“Get drunk?” Adam offered and, even as he did so, shook his head.
Harold took the comment as the jest it was intended and grinned. “So what will you do?”
“I don’t know. Go back to Cornwall perhaps.”
“I can’t see you rusticating.”
Adam let out a long sigh and stretched his legs. “Neither can I. I just need time to think.”
Harold got to his feet, fiddling with the hat in his hand. “I’m still your friend, Adam. Anything you need…you only have to ask.”
Adam held out his hand. Harold stopped playing with the hat brim and accepted the firm handshake.
Adam counted to three hundred to ensure Harold had long gone before he allowed his shoulders to slump. He needed something physical to do. The brisk stride across the park had not been enough. His body clamored for motion, manifesting itself in shaking hands which he had concealed as clenched fists.
He recalled his sixteen-year-old self, terrified of this new life he had no memory of signing up for. He had been young then with no experience, but a whole world of opportunity ahead of him. Now, he was a man with experience, but no opportunity.
Shadows lengthened as the sun began to fall. He couldn’t just sit like a lumpen until the end of time. He got to his feet.
“I hope you’re not leaving on my account.”
He swiftly turned. It was the civilian from Admiralty House. He hadn’t even heard the man approach.
“No, by all means,” said Adam, giving a sweeping bow. “Take the bench, take the park, take the devil, too, for all I care. I’m leaving.”
The stranger grinned, clearly amused. Adam’s hands turned into fists once again.
“I wanted to see you before I left London,” the man said. “And I’m very much obliged to you for making it easy. I thought it would take me days to track down whatever tavern you were drowning your sorrows in.”
“Go to hell! Who the devil do you think you are?”
The man didn’t react at all to the invective. He reached into his dark blue coat and withdrew a thick white card. He held it out.
“My name is Sir Daniel Ridgeway, and I have a proposition for you.”
Adam accepted the proffered card with reluctance and looked at it.
“And what is your proposition?”
Ridgeway shook his head, giving Adam a chance to look the man up and down more thoroughly. He was solidly built. Perhaps he’d been a boxer in his day, but unlike others long retired from the ring, this one had not gone to fat. Oddly, the silver that glinted in his dark reddish hair made the man look younger, rather than aging him.
He was forced to acknowledge Ridgeway exuded physical power as well as aristocratic confidence.
“No. Not here,” said Ridgeway. “Come to Charteris House three weeks from now.”
“I’m not prepared to discuss it here.”
Adam sneered contemptuously.
“I’ve been pushed around and humiliated quite enough,” he said, lifting up the calling card. “You either tell me what all this is about, or I tear this into pieces and lay you out on your pompous, aristocratic arse.”
Ridgeway weathered Adam’s rage with equanimity – in fact, with too much calm.
Adam’s eyes narrowed.
“Did you have anything to do with me not making lieutenant?”
“Look at your right hand, man!” said Ridgeway. “They were never going to give you that promotion. No matter how much you deserved it.”
Adam’s eyes were drawn back to his right hand and the crossed anchors tattoo. The mark of Cain.
“And you do deserve better than that. That’s what I’m offering you Mr. Hardacre, if you’re willing to take a chance offered by a pompous, aristocratic arse.”
Before Adam could draw breath to refuse, the man reached back into his coat pocket and pulled out a thickly wadded envelope.
“Fifty pounds. Consider it a signing bounty.”
Adam regarded the envelope in Ridgeway’s hands.
“I could walk away now and be fifty pounds the richer with no obligation to you.”
“You could. But you won’t.”
Adam snorted and took the envelope.
“You seem very sure of yourself.”
Ridgeway grinned in response.
“I know what sort of man I’m dealing with.”
“Do you now?”
“A man with curiosity, and that’s good enough to begin with. I’ll be expecting you in early June, Mr. Hardacre.”
Ridgeway tipped his hat and started back in the direction of Whitehall before halting and half-turning back to look at Adam.
“Whatever you decide to do, Mr. Hardacre, I’d be most obliged if you spoke to no one about this conversation. Not even your friends.”