The telephone on the reception desk was ringing. It had a stuttering ring, reluctant, as though it had better things to do than alert an attentive listener. Mr Benton was attentive, he had to be, it was his business after all. But just at that moment he chose to ignore it. Unlike him it was true but today he was feeling melancholy. Recently memories had been catching up with him. Instead he was concentrating on morning coffee and his usual two Bourbon biscuits. The ringing stopped abruptly and he stopped just as abruptly. Caught by a sudden recall, his expression forlorn, he instantly regretted his laxity.
He was known as Benton to everyone other than his residents, having long ago dispensed with his given name as an inconvenience that overcomplicated his work. The small hotel close to the beach had been his escape twenty years ago, when his employers had retired him following the misadventure in Berlin before the wall came down. The interesting nature of the building had attracted him to it. There was history held within the walls. It spoke of times gone by. The twenties roaring away and in the war, Americans stationed there jitterbugging with the local girls, drinking Bourbon and eating doughnuts no doubt. Then a government building, with government nonsense, assorted ministry functions until left derelict. Expansive facilities and fourteen luxurious rooms en-suite were the result of his extensive renovations. One of the most popular getaway places on the south coast.
Benton, over sixty now, not that it showed. The face of an intelligent man, rugged and handsome with small giveaways of past violence. The telephone was ringing again and this time he answered it. It was the attractive, dark haired lady in number seven who had arrived that morning. Fiona Jameson was a bit of a mystery and that intrigued him. She was enquiring if the Hotel catered for lunch. He said not, as guests tended to be out during the day but if necessary he could rustle up something cold. She said, “no problem,” and hung up.
Mary Simpson was slowly descending the wide, curving staircase, probably after inspecting the upper rooms. A fastidious and indispensable housekeeper. Over fifty with the look of someone who had scrubbed dishes all their life but Benton knew that was not the case. She looked up and saw him watching her. Saw the expression on his face and instinctively knew where he was. She crossed the wide, front hallway, looked into his face and touched his arm casually. A knowing gesture referring to events exactly twenty years ago. Nothing was said and she went on her way to find Pearson in the garden to arrange the terrace furniture for early evening cocktails.
Fiona Jameson was standing at the reception desk when Benton came out of the office. She presented her key and said she was out until late and what time did the main door close. “Ten thirty Madam but there will be a night porter if you are later, just ring.” She nodded. His eyes thoughtfully followed her out of the door. She was young, no more than thirty he guessed, and his practiced ear detected a slight accent, maybe eastern European. Naturally but also with the experience of necessity Benton was a suspicious man, habitually scrutinising everybody and everything. There was something about her that disturbed him.
Missing every third beat, the telephone rang again. He would have to get it fixed. It was annoying him now. On the phone was a man with a deep resonating voice and a definite East European accent that he could place from the Georgia area.
“Can I speak with Fiona Jameson please?”
“I am sorry she has just left. Can I take a message?”
“No message.” The line went dead.
He put down the receiver deep in thought.
Benton picked up the phone and dialled a London number. There was a click before it rang. There was another click when it was answered.
“This is Clarence.” a muffled, tinny voice said.
“Gabriel 22 has possible asthma. What level of pollution is in my location?”
“Pollution is moderate and rising. Taking precautions is advised. And Angel 22?”
“Angel 22 is healthy.”
“Report further if you continue to feel unwell.”
“Thank you Clarence,” and he hung up.
Much later, near midnight, he was in the office. He knew he would not be able to settle and sleep would elude him. He was sifting through his memories, looking for inspiration. Mary came in with tea.
“I knew you would be up. Green tea, refreshing, it will help clear your mind.”
“There was a call today, a Georgian man, an older man’s voice. very abrupt, asking for Fiona Jameson. She’s not who she says she is.”
“Are you sure? A Georgian? And the girl?”
“There’s no mistake. I’ve not heard the voice before but the accent - we both have experience of that. Were there loose ends do you think?
“It’s never possible to be absolutely certain but we did all we could. The sting should have worked. It was a tragedy, Natasha, but she was followed by a man unconnected to our mission. There was a coincidence, if there had been none, that would have been too suspicious.”
“I see it very clearly. Step by step as it unfolded. The phone stopped, just as he appeared. It had seemed so loud. He shot her and the mark fled. She said he was her husband, before she died, she said that. For two years I had prepared her, set her up. It should not have ended like that. They were right. We should have known she was married. I was very fond of her despite being adversaries. I got too close, that’s obvious.”
“The fallout was not your fault, our fault. We were scapegoats to satisfy the Department. If the others had wanted retribution it would have happened by now.”
“Would it? They have long memories. Even with the Cold War ending there will be those who grieved.”
“So, what to do?”
“I have spoken to Clarence. There’s a moderate risk so we increase our vigilance.”
“Was that necessary, speaking to Clarence? We have had no contact for what - ten years? And the Georgian. Why phone here? He would know he would alert us.”
“To draw us out perhaps. We have done the same, in Rome and other places. If this is a threat they will have a plan that’s for sure. It will all be part of their plan. You know the routine. We are monitored for a reason. To prevent us from being compromised.”
“Ok. How do we proceed?”
“We follow protocol and be vigilant. We watch it unfold and act appropriately.”
The hotel was full and breakfast a hectic affair. Nine o’clock was the optimum time. It always had been and presented the best opportunity to observe the guests. Fiona Jameson was sitting on her own and did not speak to anyone. She was watchful though, her eyes never still but not focused on anyone in particular. Her actions were expertly subtle and to Benton obviously incongruous, underlining his suspicions. She left the dining room and went upstairs to reappear a few minutes later dressed in a long, grey, loose fitting coat and flat shoes. A dark grey shoulder bag with the long strap on her right hand shoulder and the bag over her left hip with the flap pointing outwards. Unfastened.
Benton, standing in the entrance hall, saw her with the bag and moved behind the reception desk, which she approached with her right hand lifting the bag flap. Although his heart was racing he showed no emotion. His left hand was on the counter top casually moving some papers, with his right hand on the shelf below. She removed her key from the bag, “I’ll be out for a while,” she said, “but will be back before lunchtime and would like to take you up on your kind offer of something cold to eat. A sandwich would be fine. If that’s possible.”
“That will be no trouble. I will arrange for something for about one o’clock. It will be prepared, just ask at reception when you are ready.”
As she left he removed his right hand, releasing his grip on the small semi-automatic pistol.
Later that morning, about eleven, he drove into town. It was essential to do the banking, more cash being needed for the bar float. As he was driving along the seafront he saw Fiona talking to a tall, stocky, grey haired man dressed in a dark suit who was speaking rapidly. Behind him, facing the road, was a middle aged, tall, tough looking man with a number one haircut. Benton was sure the man had seen him and, keeping an eye in his mirror, saw him track the car to the end of the promenade road.
He arrived back at the hotel just before one and saw Fiona sitting in the lounge eating lunch. He went over to her and said, “is everything alright...the lunch I mean?”
“Lovely thank you. I will be staying here this afternoon if that’s OK.”
“That’s absolutely fine. If you need anything just ask,”
Mary was in the office ploughing through paperwork and Benton sat down opposite her.
Mary says, “Fiona Jameson has her lunch and is in the lounge.”
“Yes I’ve seen her, she is staying in this afternoon. Have you anything pressing?”
“Then stay close.”
About three o'clock, Benton sees the middle aged man Fiona had been with come into the hallway and begin surreptitiously looking at the “what to do board”, casually flicking through the flyers. He glances a nod over his shoulder at Fiona who gets up and starts moving towards the entrance hall where Benton is standing behind the reception desk. At the same time a young woman, maybe twenty five, wearing a long, blue jacket with her right hand in the right hand pocket enters through the front door. Clearly in a very distressed state. Highly agitated. Her eyes are shifting, never still. She is spinning around, moving this way and that, slightly crouched and making a real commotion.
Moving towards the desk, shouting in Russian, she removes her hand from her pocket, pointing a gun at Benton. As she takes aim, the middle aged man moves quickly, grasping her gun arm pulling it down to point at the floor just as the gun fires. Fiona accelerates across the hallway, grabs the girl around the shoulders forcing her against the wall. Through the front door comes the grey haired man with two smartly dressed men who are clearly subordinates. They take hold of the girl and escort her out to a waiting black Mercedes. The grey haired man just says, “thank you,” and follows his team to the car. The whole episode lasting no more than two minutes.
Fiona walks over to the reception desk where Benton and now Mary, being attracted by the pandamonium, are standing.
She holds out her hand and says, “Angel 38, Sir, and this is Gabriel 38. Clarence sent us when the Department became aware of Natasha’s imminent arrival.”
“Natasha?” said Benton, “can you explain a bit more please? Come into the office.”
Gabriel said, “Natasha is named after her mother. She has grown up blaming you for her mother’s death and her father’s incarceration. Her uncle has nurtured her hate and poisoned her mind. She had learnt your whereabouts from her uncle who, as you are aware, was part of the mother’s team twenty years ago. The other side were aware that the daughter and her Uncle were planning revenge near the twentieth anniversary. The Uncle was apprehended but Natasha evaded them. We were alerted and provided support while waiting for her to arrive. She was being tracked by their agents who were liaising with us here on the coast. She will be taken home for rehabilitation.”
And so this was to be the last emergency that Benton and Mary were to experience. Gabriel 38 and his Angel left the hotel that day, having satisfied the local police of the circumstances. Most of the hotel guests had been out so the fracas was mainly rumour. Benton and Mary continued successfully running the hotel for many years, cementing what was after all one of the most enduring and exciting of relationships.