“The Swamp Rat” Dark Spy Thriller by Philip Ivory

Pipes groaned and water drops echoed in the dank room. Timmins, standing against a grimy wall, had a clear view of the steel-plated door. Every few minutes, he took the pistol out as if to make sure it was really there.

Havelock, was late. Intentional? What had Dunbar said about him? Something about a bag of tricks.

Timmins slipped the gun back into his pocket. He had never fired it and was frankly afraid of the thing. But to go about without it would be idiocy. The man he was supposed to meet was not one to take lightly.

Dunbar’s instructions had been simple. Give Havelock the money. Get the papers from him. Turn them over to Dunbar.

Dunbar, after giving the instructions, had asked Timmins outright if he would run off with the loot. Insulting. It would be funny, months later, to send Dunbar a telegram, from Singapore or Greece or wherever the money and his fancy took him:

SORRY OLD BOY THINGS DIDN’T GO TO PLAN STOP BEST OF LUCK WITH KING AND COUNTRY

Of course, that would be foolish, amateur. But delightful to think about.

And he wasn’t an amateur, but a force to be reckoned with, even if Dunbar didn’t know it. Timmins even had a reputation, if not by his real name. Perhaps not on par with this Havelock, but still.

As an offering, Timmins had brought a bottle of the whiskey Havelock had mentioned in his telegram.

The hell with that. He uncapped it now. It burned his throat in a pleasant way. Something small scratched in a dark recess. Timmins remained alert, poised for the door to open. It was essential that he and Havelock meet. It was fate.

#

Four days earlier, Timmins had been sipping brandy in the café on Rue de Rivoli near where he worked.

“Hallo?” Half a question. The man was English, older, in a frayed, unfashionable tweed suit and sporting, of all things, a gold-rimmed monocle in his right eye. He had a high, churchy voice, with a hint of a Scottish Highlands. “Selcroft, is it? No, Tunbridge? No, no. Timmins! I never forget a face. Yes, I remember that steely eye! Unmistakable. What a marvel it is seeing you here.”

 “Hello!” said Timmins, perplexed for the moment.

“Oh, I apologize. I shouldn’t expect you remember. I’m Harold Dunbar.”

Dunbar had been his medieval history tutor. Now older and grayer. But it was Dunbar’s daughter he remembered most vividly, Cynthia with those gravely sympathetic eyes. Sometimes he had dreams in which he found himself in that conversation again.  

Timmins invited Dunbar to sit. Dunbar, who only wanted tea, asked what Timmins had done since he’d left Cambridge in 1931, six years prior.

Timmins told him. He’d performed well enough in the diplomatic service in London to be assigned a position as an attaché at the French Ministry of Justice to coordinate information with London.

“That’s splendid,” said Dunbar. “Knew you had potential, if only you’d apply yourself.”

Timmins flinched. “Well, as students go, I’m sure I was far from your best.”

Timmins could still see Dunbar’s green ink on his papers. “Rudimentary thinking.” “Intellectually lazy.” “Lacking true insight.” These things had gutted him at the time. The harshness seemed at odds with Dunbar’s affable front. The shame had driven him to purchase essays by older students, which Timmins passed off as his own, successfully so far as he knew. This moral loosening had, in some ways, been a new beginning, a signpost.

“Expect I was a bit of a duffer,” Timmins added.

And yet he’d worked nights during his university years at a fish and chips place to help his mother meet his fees.

“But the proof’s in the pudding.” Dunbar said, spreading his hands as if to say: “Just look at you.”

Timmins asked him about students they’d known in common. Soon he was promising to send a cheque for five pounds for the new funding drive to rebuild the school chapel.

“Splendid, thanks,” said Dunbar. “You parents are well?”

Timmins looked at him coldly. “My father died in the War. My mother’s still in Bristol.”

“Oh,” said Dunbar. He withdrew the monocle from his eye with a handkerchief. “Sorry, should have remembered.”

In fact, it had been Cynthia that Timmins had poured his heart out to at that garden party those many years ago, at the cottage Dunbar and his wife kept off the south end of Parker’s Piece in Cambridge.

He’d been nineteen and she’d been perhaps fifteen, still at school, sitting on the arm of his chair as he sipped lemonade, talking about growing up poor in Bristol, feeling inferior to the other undergraduates. He confessed how embarrassed he’d been to see the understanding look the college porter had given his bags the day he’d arrived as a first year.

“It doesn’t matter, about your bags and clothes and things,” Cynthia had said. “In a few years you’ll be onto such wonderful things. You’ll be a rich and famous solicitor in London.”

He had thought of being a solicitor then. This was what the fifteen-year-old girl had said to him and to this day he still thought of it as one of the finest things anyone had ever said. He’d even told her that pathetic story about saying goodbye to his father.

He’d wanted to take her hand but had seen Dunbar in the doorway to the garden, laughing and clapping the captain of the rowing team, Colin Stokes, on the shoulder. When his monocled gaze fell on Timmins next to his daughter, Dunbar stopped laughing. Timmins felt naked, as if all his failings, from his second-hand robes to his uncertain table manners to his fatherless upbringing, were being examined.

Perhaps Timmins had read too much into that moment. Still, not long after that, Dunbar’s harsh comments had begun to appear on Timmins’ essays.

Now Timmins said: “Your wife? How is she?”

“Splendid. We moved into a house near the new library.”

“And Cynthia?”

Dunbar paused, narrowed his eyes. “She’s in London, now.”

“Oh?”

“She got married.”

“I’m happy to hear it.” Timmins felt crushed. Married. Probably to someone rich and stupid, some dreadful toff, one of Dunbar’s favored students.

Dunbar finished polishing the monocle. It was then Timmins noticed the slight tremor running along the left arm. Dunbar glanced up, met his eyes.

“Damn thing, comes on at the most … nerves, you know.” Dunbar replanted the monocle. “Did you ever hear, when you were at University, any rumblings about things I did during the War?”

“No, not a thing.”

“Oh, it wasn’t much. A few things I was able to do to help the government. It really came about because I was in correspondence with some German historians for a book I was working on.”

Dunbar confided he had gathered intelligence for England, obtaining secrets through correspondence with a German scholar who wrote too openly about some military advice he’d given the Kaiser. Timmins was mildly impressed. So Dunbar had been a spy of sorts, an academic variety who weaseled secrets via letters, but a spy nonetheless.

“You kept up this kind of work after the war? At Cambridge?”

“Yes, from time to time, when teaching allowed.”

“You still do?”

Dunbar did not answer directly. “You follow the dispatches out of Europe?”

“Not every day.”

“You must know there’s another war coming. This Hitler’s a mad dog. Worse than any Kaiser. It’s coming, and England won’t be safe.”

“All the more reason to be here,” Timmins said lightly. He wasn’t very interested in politics.

“I wouldn’t be at all sure about Paris. Anyway, you must feel some loyalty for home. Your mother in Bristol, for instance.”

What was Dunbar driving at? “Well, if Hitler wants Bristol, he can have it.”

Dunbar gave him a look. Not exactly disapproving, more like Timmins was being appraised. “I always thought you were a boy of strong nerve. Buying essays off other students, passing them off as your own.”

Timmins stiffened in his chair.

“It’s all right! Ancient history. In fact, I … I have a notion about something. Something that’s been weighing on me, you know.”

Hadn’t Dunbar already put the touch on him for the school chapel? “Look, if there’s anything I can do. I’m glad to help.”

“No, no. I shouldn’t get you involved.” Dunbar’s face brightened. “That’s funny. My daughter spoke to me about you, that day we had the garden party. Odd, that coming back to me now. I mean she said something after you and the others had left.”

“She did?”

“She said: ‘I think that boy’s very lonely. But he’ll come out all right in the end.’ Yes, I think that was it.”

Timmins remembered pouring out his heart to her, voice low so he wouldn’t be heard over the laughter and tinkle of glasses and the occasional mayfly buzzing in from the garden. He didn’t want to made sport of later by the other boys. Told her about when he’d been five, standing alongside his mother in the open doorway in Bristol, watching his father walking toward the gate and the street beyond. Tall. Golden-haired. Something joyful and musical in his stride. That laughing glint in his eye even in quiet or serious moments. As in the moment of final goodbye. The boy had broken from his mother, running out to the gate, crying. His father had turned, already in uniform, a bag over his shoulder, and knelt there at the gate.

“Chin up, old thing. Got to teach these Huns a lesson, haven’t we? King and country and all that. You’ll understand when you’re older. But don’t worry. I’ll be back sooner than you can say lager ‘n lime.”

His father had pressed young Timmins’ shoulder and walked off to join his friends at the station. Then he was gone. Killed at a terrible battle called Gallipoli. No body was ever recovered. Nothing came back but a letter from the King, a medal and a few personal effects.

“Poor thing,” Cynthia had said after he told her. “Things will get better, I promise. Things come right in the end, especially for those who have a hard time of it early on. I believe that.”

Timmins had never forgotten. He never imagined that she had remembered him, was astonished to hear otherwise from Dunbar.

“She was very nice to me, I remember. Look, whatever this thing is, why don’t you come out with it? Honestly, I’ll let you know if it isn’t something I can do.”

Dunbar grinned as if he liked Timmins’ forthrightness very much. “Here’s the thing. I do remember you, obviously. Clever boy, resourceful. Some nerve, no doubt. No academic fireball, but what does that matter for our purpose? And you’re successful. I’ve been asked to do another job for Britain. Meet a man. Not to put too fine a point on it, said to be dangerous. But if he’s handled the right way … I don’t mind writing to people, cultivating them for information, but meeting them in person, especially someone of, shall we say, a certain reputation …”

Timmins’ lunch hour was almost over. “I’m not following.”

“I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t think I’m up to it. There, I’ve said it. It would be nothing to you. Would you do it for me? Meet this fellow? For a price?”

#

Timmins’ vague plan of becoming a solicitor, the plan Cynthia had talked about, didn’t last after Cambridge. There had been no money for learning the law. He had needed to go to London at once to find a job. For a time, he learned the ins and outs of the city by doing crime reporting. He became fascinated by the idea of a kind of vice-ridden sub city below the surface of things. He also did a few higher-level pieces on politics. This led to an interview with an official in the diplomatic service, who befriended him and helped him get a job there. He enjoyed the work but could never rise above a certain point. The higher paygrade levels seem carefully protected. Timmins saw others who were no more talented, but who came from better families, rise effortlessly. He could not prove this was the reason he remained stuck but believed with bitter certainty that this was the case.

After that, he became indifferent to the work and made mistakes on drafts of letters. When reprimanded, he handed in his notice with no other plan in mind. His superior still saw something in Timmins and persuaded him not to quit by offering him the job in Paris. No pay rise was included but the glamour of the foreign city was enough to make Timmins agree to stay on.

A year after coming to Paris, he was having lunch with a friend, another exiled Englishman, at the same café in Rue de Rivoli where he would later meet Dunbar. His friend shamefacedly confessed he’d been arrested for buying opium in Bois du Boulogne. He’d had to bribe the French police not to inform the bank where he worked, who would have telegrammed the London office, who surely would have sacked him. It had been a near thing, and Timmins, with great interest, drank in the fear that rippled across his friend’s features as he talked about it. Timmins thought about the handful of francs that had been slipped into a policeman’s pocket. What would it take to become the one whose pockets were being lined?

He’d begun to make it his business to know people, the best, the worst, in-between. Sometimes he posed as a writer. Outside of work hours, he’d cultivated contacts who had ways of procuring embarrassing information on French nationals, sometimes on visiting English as well. He developed a low-level network of bellboys, nurses, abortionists, brothel managers and others knowledgeable and helpful when you greased their palms in the right way.

That was all right. The tricky part was confronting the guilty parties to their faces, threatening to reveal information to wives, husbands, families, employers … whichever seemed most damaging. The first time, the man’s face become so inflamed and angry that Timmins, growing frightened, made a joke of the whole thing and excused himself, slipping away quickly. The second time went much better. It was a young bride who had married into a manufacturing family that had made millions building munitions for the French army during the Great War. Her mistake was that after the marriage, she’d continued seeing her lover, who worked a mallet at a slaughterhouse. She had nearly become ill when confronted, and offered a sum much greater than the one Timmins had intended to ask for. (A good lesson. Let them talk their way deeper into trouble.)

That night he’d celebrated being a successful blackmailer with a grand dinner. He’d bought the pistol soon after. Blackmail was a tricky thing but an “accidental” flash of his pistol was usually enough to discourage any high-handed business from his victims. Benefactors as he preferred to think of them. There was a bench outside a bookshop in the fourth arrondissment. After a day’s work, Timmins would wait there. Furtive men and women would slip him a book with a sum between its leaves, 5,000 francs or more on a good day.

After a few years of this, Timmins had been amused to hear whispers in the city about a mysterious figure, the “rat des marais.” The swamp rat. Not flattering, but Timmins enjoyed the notion of being a notorious figure. He’d thought it rather a grand thing in its way.

#

When Dunbar had asked him to do the job, Timmins pressed for details. But Dunbar had not wanted to say anymore in a café on the street. They had agreed to meet again the next day where Dunbar was staying at the Hotel Jeanne d’Arc, a few streets from where Timmins lived in le Marais.

Timmins passed a dull day at his office. He could not stop wondering about Dunbar’s offer. Walking at lunchtime, he nearly came face to face with a magnificently dressed woman carrying a parasol. It was the first woman he’d ever blackmailed, the one who’d married into the manufacturing family while continuing to see her lover. She recognized him as well. Both averted their faces and kept walking. She still wore her wedding ring, Timmins noticed. No harm done, he said to himself, apart from the expense she’d incurred, which probably meant little to a woman of her standing.

At the Hotel Jeanne d’Arc that evening, he and Dunbar sat in a corner of the lobby. Dunbar explained: “A man named Havelock is staying here in Paris, we don’t know where exactly. You can reach him by telegram at Saint Lazare station. That is, if you are interested.”

“What do I do when I meet him? What’s this about?”

“We’ve promised him five thousand British pounds. I’ve already left the first half with him. You’ll give him the rest, in person only. He’ll give you some papers in return.  That’s all. Bring them to me and I’ll give you your fee.”

The fee, fifty pounds, was handsome enough. And he would have the pistol on him. What concerned him more was the trust Dunbar was placing in him, asking him to hold twenty-five hundred pounds. It made him question Dunbar’s judgment.

“Who is this man?”

“The less you know the better.”

“I don’t agree,” said Timmins.

“There was a scandal in Austria last year. Their finance minister was implicated, that he received payments for passing secrets that benefited a consortium of investors in Spain. The minister ended up taking poison.”

Timmins vaguely remembered the story. “What’s it to do with …”

“The go-between who paid the minister for the secrets was Havelock. This is where we can only speculate, but one of our sources says when pressure from the Austrian government came to bear on the minister, and he was on the verge of confessing, that’s when he was found dead. But the poison wasn’t really self-inflicted.”

“You’re saying this man Havelock did it, to clean things up?”

“Yes, and was well paid for all of it, by his friends in Spain.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s as English as you or I. But he’s a bloody traitor, if you want the truth.” Dunbar’s affable exterior gave way to a kind of vivid, bitter disdain. “Other people have died because of him, some of them English. Another man, someone I knew from home who got into some trouble, ending up taking his own life, for fear of what Havelock might expose.”

The thought entered Timmins’ head that Havelock might be a man worth knowing.

“He does sound tricky to handle. Perhaps I should get more than fifty.”

“Sorry, that part’s not negotiable. And another thing. You mustn’t whisper a word of any of this, especially what I’m about to tell you. All right?”

Timmins bristled a little. “Yes, go on.”

“Here’s the thing that concerns us now. There was an engineer in our shipyards in Sunderland. He lost most of his money in ’29 and never recovered, turning to gambling, getting in a deeper hole. He came over here to France ostensibly for a kind of rest cure, but really to meet our man Havelock. He sold Havelock critical information on our defenses, plans and all kinds of things.”

“Yes?”

“On our ships and things.”

“Oh?”

“Well, don’t you see?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

Dunbar glanced around the lobby, lowered his tone. “I told you there’s another war coming. My German contacts tell me Havelock has made overtures to sell this information to Hitler.”

Dunbar seemed to be pausing to let the import of his words sink in. “This is a terrible thing, don’t you see? If Germany gets this information, the whole war will go much harder for us.”

This patriotic talk made Timmins tired. He had been done with that kind of thing by age twelve. When other kids wanted to play soldiers fighting Zulus or Boers, instead of games he’d preferred like Robin Hood or pirates, he’d wander off to throw stones into the canal. This was around the time he gave up the fantasy that his father might have survived that battle and could still stroll in at the door one day whole and sound, as if he’d just been ‘round the pub.

Now Timmins was thinking about his own future. What if the swamp ran dry?  Or what if the Swamp Rat reputation were traced back to him? Either way, Paris would be over. But weren’t there other places in the world? This man, Havelock, saw things in a bigger way, concerned himself with things grander than envelopes passed nervously by clerks and lowly officials. Maybe Havelock needed a partner, someone with a talent for scrounging up facts. Tawdry facts, yes. But useful.

Dunbar was giving him a shrewd look. “Well, what do you say? You’re still young, and you have a taste for adventure, or have I read you wrong? Say you’ll do it. Fifty isn’t bad for a night’s work.”

More than the money, Timmins’ curiosity about meeting Havelock felt like a burning need, a way to open a door to a higher plane of existence.

“Oh, all right,” said Timmins. “Why not? I don’t imagine he’s as frightening as you make him out. I’ll do your dirty work, if that’s what you want.”

 “Excellent, you won’t regret it” said Dunbar. He wagged an instructive finger, another affectation Timmins remembered from Cambridge days. “’Man towers above the rest of creation so long as he realizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts.’”

“What’s that?”

“Boethius. Don’t you remember?”

#

They met again two days later, back in the Jeanne D’Arc lobby. Dunbar had said he needed a day to contact Havelock about the new arrangements.                                       

“Did you check with your superiors back in London, about putting me onto this caper?” asked Timmins.

“No need. They trust my judgment.”

“It’s a bit irregular, surely?”

“Believe me, the tricky part was dealing with Havelock. He knows who I am. But he doesn’t know you. It took the devil to convince him to let you make the contact. Must have written back and forth a dozen times.”

“How do you do that?”

“I told you before. By telegram. You have to address him  as Hammond. Yes, it’s rather complicated. Then he sends a telegram to me here, at my hotel. In your case, he’ll send it to the telegraph office directly opposite the café where we met. Will that work?”

“Yes, fine.” A notion struck him. “Say, have you thought of just arresting this fellow? I mean, if he’s done all the things you say.”

Dunbar looked downcast. “Yes. We’re afraid if he gets wind of anything like that, he’ll give us the slip, be off to Germany with the papers. He’s too damned clever.”

“Is Havelock his real name?”

“Well that’s … an interesting question.”

Dunbar’s eccentricities were giving Timmins a headache. “You don’t have to so be mysterious.”

“I’m not, but really, it’s better if there are some things you don’t know.”

“It’s all right for me to stick my neck out, but not to know too much, is that it?”

To Timmins’ annoyance, Dunbar was regarding him in a satisfied, appraising way. The Cambridge don granting his approval. “I think you’ll do fine. You really will.  You should be proud, you know.”

 “Don’t talk rubbish.”

“Think of your father. Gave his life in the Great War, didn’t he? King and country. He’d be proud if he could see you now, don’t you think?”

Timmins answered coldly. “It’s been a long day. Should we go over it one last time?”

 They discussed logistics again, and Dunbar said: “I’m here until term starts, by the way. I’ve spoken to Cynthia about her coming over in August. She’s never been to Paris. Maybe you could join us for a dinner one night, if we can work out the schedule.”

Timmins stared at him. “You said she was married?”

“Yes. Well. Life can be complicated. And she … she’s a very fine person. Feels things, more than others. Sympathetic, you know. You may remember. She deserves more from life.”

Timmins felt a tinge of satisfaction. Perhaps the husband was old enough to have been in the war but was one of those who was never right in the head after. There was a lot of that about. Or perhaps he cheated on her. It was easy to imagine things. There was no vice Timmins hadn’t encountered in his secret work.

They ran through the arrangements once more and said goodnight.

#

A few days later, Timmins sent a telegram to the Saint Lazare office:

HAVELOCK WHEN WHERE CAN WE MEET STOP REPLY AT OFFICE AT 3433 RUE DE RIVOLO STOP

CORDIALLY NICHOLAS TIMMINS

He had signed it with his real name because Dunbar said he should and he saw no reason not to. The reply was waiting for him a few hours later.

WHO DEVIL ARE YOU QUERY WHERES DUNBAR

HAMMOND.

Dunbar had said he’d cleared all this with Havelock, told him Timmins would be taking his place. Timmins thought of going over to Dunbar’s hotel and giving him hell. But he was tired of dealing with him. He decided the ball was in his own court and replied immediately.

DUNBAR ASKED ME STEP IN STOP DIDN’T HE EXPLAIN QUERY ENOUGH TALK LETS MEET

TIMMINS

Havelock’s reply arrived an hour later.

HELL OF A NERVE STOP DUNBAR IDIOT STOP FORGET DEAL STOP BLOODY WELL KEEPING ADVANCE

Timmins felt obliged to call Dunbar then, but there was no answer in his room, although it was after 10 PM. So Timmins walked back to the telegraph office and wrote:

DON’T BE DRAMATIC MUST DO DEAL STOP YOU WANT REST OF MONEY I KNOW STOP I’M LIKE YOU MUST MEET

Some of this, Timmins realized, might seem odd, even compromising, if it got back to Dunbar or his superiors. On the other hand, it could be explained on the basis that Timmins was trying to provoke the man into showing. The next telegram arrived early in the morning:

ALL RIGHT THIS EVENING AT EIGHT BASEMENT STORAGE ROOM HOTEL DARCET STOP BRING BOTTLE MACALLAN SCOTCH

In the early afternoon, Timmins went around to Dunbar’s hotel to get the remainder of the payment to give Havelock. Dunbar was huddled in a corner of his room in a robe with a tea kettle between his knees. The monocle was in a little red velvet case on an end table.

“Must look a bit foolish, but need the steam,” he said, apologetically, taking in deep breaths.

It was a confining sort of room, one little window looking on a noisy fish market, and wainscoting that seemed to close in as it rose.

“Listen, what’s this business?” Timmins went on to complain about Havelock not knowing who he was.

Dunbar fluttered his fingers as if to usher the steam up toward his nasal cavities. “He’s being difficult. It’s part of his bag of tricks. You’d understand if you knew him better.”

“I don’t understand. It’s bloody awkward.”

“But he’s agreed to meet? At the Darcet? That’s what matters.”

Timmins nodded.

Between breaths of the steam, Dunbar was eying him in an odd, almost fearful way, biting his lower lip as if wanting to speak but not daring to.

 “Is there something wrong?” demanded Timmins.

“Nothing, only, well, I think I should like to call the whole thing off.”

Timmins was astonished. “What? Why?”

“Something feels off. But we’re already on the hook for a great deal of money.”

“Well, give me the rest and we’ll close the deal. This is no time to get a case of nerves.”

 Dunbar rose, carefully placing the tea kettle on the floor, wrapping his robe around his shoulders. He walked over to the wardrobe, opened it, fished around in some files on the upper shelf, and returned with an envelope.

There was an awkward moment as Dunbar continued to grip the envelope, as if reluctant to give it over. Timmins waited tensely, hand outstretched. Meeting Havelock had grown to something very important in his mind. But didn’t want to seem too desperate for it.

Timmins searched for something to say. “Have you heard from your daughter?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“I think it’s best she not come over now.”

“Oh?”

Dunbar said nothing. The envelope trembled in his grip.

“Suit yourself,” said Timmins. “Are you going to give me the money or not? I don’t want to stand here all night.”

Finally, Dunbar released his grip so Timmins could take the envelope. Dunbar sat, huddling beneath the robe, bringing the tea kettle to his knees again. “Bring the papers here, no matter how late. I’ll be awake.”

Timmins confirmed the money was there. “Are you going to tell me what you’re so bloody on edge about?”

“If you want to know, I’m afraid you’ll muck it up. This is dreadfully important. To all of us. I realize I barely know who you are now, really.”

“Thanks. Thanks most awfully. It’s a little late for that kind of thing, isn’t it?”

“It’s nothing personal.”

“The hell it isn’t.”

Dunbar looked up at him between breaths. “You won’t …”

“Won’t what?”

“Run off with the money?”

Timmins glared at him. Last time, Dunbar had said there might be more jobs coming along after this. Promised to bring Cynthia over. Told Timmins he ought to be proud. Now he’d canceled out all of that and was adding insult on top of it.

“I ought to knock you off your chair for saying that.”

Dunbar took a deep breath, remained maddeningly calm. “You don’t enjoy violence any more than I do.”

Through his blackmail work, even as a kid, Timmins had avoided fights his entire life. It was annoying for Dunbar to presume to know him so well.

“All right, if you think you know everything, then I’m going to show you. I’m going to get those papers. I’ll bring them here straight away. When I say I’m going to do a job, I bloody well do it, that’s one thing you’ll know about me.”

There was a strange look in Dunbar’s eye. Almost pleading. Then he said something that sent Timmins’ blood cold: “I thought you were clever.”

Timmins, who couldn’t fathom what the words meant, covered his fear quickly in indignation. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing at all.”

“I’ll get those papers, I’ll show you.”

But Dunbar, head downward, was no longer looking at him.

Timmins stormed out. From the hallway, he heard a sound that he assumed must have been the tea kettle hitting the floor and Dunbar crying out: “Oh damn!”.

#

Timmins dined at a little Russian restaurant. The envelope with 2500 pounds sat heavily in his pocket. He considered taking the night-train to Prague. He had thought about it even before Dunbar’s insulting remark. A man could live for quite a time on that money. The price would be to give up both his job in Paris and his secret work. Starting over someplace else would be hard. The smarter investment was to wait, to meet this man, Havelock. See what would come.

That’s how Timmins found himself in the utility room. He checked his watch again. It was 8:37. He took another swig of the whiskey and brooded. Mostly about Dunbar’s mood during their last meeting, and his remark about Timmins not being clever.

It was all rubbish. Bottom line was, people like Dunbar might pretend to think of you as an equal, a friend. They could use you, yes. But it was all lies. Timmins, no matter how satisfactorily he might perform, would always be the boy with the threadbare bags. Would never be worthy, not of Dunbar’s approval, certainly not of his precious daughter.

Something else nagged at him. Dunbar had said there was something wrong. What if Timmins was in real danger? He thought about washing his hands of it. There were other things in the world, simpler things that could be pursued, things less exciting but less likely to cause harm to himself or others. He would leave the basement, now, just walk out. Go to Dunbar’s hotel, return the money, try to be civil to him, and then never see him again. Maybe even taper off the Swamp Rat activities. He realized these things had become a bit of a weight. He felt a lightness at the idea of chucking it all.

In his head, a voice, a part of himself, was saying: Walk away. Now.

He heard heavy footfalls. The steel door swung inward, making an ugly scraping sound. A man in a long gray overcoat and matching fedora stood there. A black scarf covered most of the face, except for the eyes, which burned intensely beneath silver-rimmed spectacles. The coat was opened below the throat and the corner of a yellow envelope was visible.

Timmins gently touched the gun in his pocket. “You Havelock?”

The man answered in a harsh whisper, a cultured London accent. “If you want the papers, give me the money. Now.”

“I have the money! I brought the whiskey, too.” Timmins held forth the bottle.

“That was a joke.”

“I got tired of waiting and drank some of it!” In fact, Timmins felt a little drunk.

The man gave no reply.

“Listen,” said Timmins. “I … we should work together. I’ll give you the money! But … I’m good at things.”

The whisper again. “Shut up. I just want the money.”

Timmins knew that as long as he held the envelope, he had some advantage. He was not the student the others laughed at because he didn’t know good wine from bad. Not the fool being led on a string by Dunbar with his promises of bringing Cynthia over. Not the sobbing boy left at the gate,

“No, wait. Listen. I know how to find information on people. I work for the British government! And with a war coming … Cut me in for a portion. Let me help you.”

“Why should I?” said the man. “Who the hell are you?”

“Have you heard of the Swamp Rat?”

The man snorted under his breath. “You’re not him.”

“I am. I’ve done all kinds of people. I’m good.”

“If that’s true … I heard a story. An Englishman who fathered a child with a French woman, a prostitute, in Montmartre. Two years ago. Needed to keep it quiet. They say this Swamp Rat blackmailed him, took him for all he was worth.”

“That was me! I did that.”

“You don’t have the nerve.”

“His name was Grace. Stephen Grace.”

There was a deep intake of breath. “Thanks for the confirmation.”

A terrible noise, as if the world had shattered. Timmins felt something exploding outward from his heart. Had his gun somehow gone off? It was an excruciating sensation.

For a moment, all he saw was a blur of black and red, but then his vision became clearer. He saw Havelock and the smoke rising from the gun he was pointing.

“Why— why?” Timmins sputtered. Hiccupping blood and clutching his chest, he staggered against the boiler, metallic and cold. The whiskey bottle rolled into the darkness, making pinging sounds that he could see as stabs of light. He sunk to the floor.

The man in the scarf came closer. With his left hand, he rummaged for the gun in Timmins’ pocket, causing jagged bolts of pain in Timmins’ gut. The man found the gun, looked at it, tossed it into a dark corner. To Timmins’ horror, the man resumed searching his pockets. Timmins gasped but could not resist or push him away.

The man withdrew the envelope full of money. Checked to see it was all there, then pocketed it. The hand holding his own gun fell to his side in an offhand way, as if Timmins offered no threat now, if he ever had.

This was unendurable. This man who should have been his friend was making him feel as helpless as a child. Had shot him for no good reason.

Now the man leaned in very close to Timmins. “You have a good memory. Yes, his name was Grace. Did you know he had a wife back in England?”

Timmins shook his head frantically, tried to answer, to say no, he knew nothing of the man’s wife, nothing at all. If he could have spoken, he would have suggested that perhaps he might find a way to make the matter good, if that’s what this was about.

They would agree, Timmons and Havelock, on how Timmins could make things right. And then Havelock would take him to a doctor. Get him patched up. And then they would have a drink together and end up friends after all. Stranger things had happened.

But the man was still speaking about Stephen Grace.

“He went home to her, tried to hide the truth. But she noticed the missing money. The money he used to pay you. In the end, he had to tell her anyway. And then he killed himself. With a knife. Messy business. You didn’t know that, did you? You can’t imagine the effect on her. Finding him like that in the bathtub.”

Timmins gurgled, wanting to speak, to protest that, well, perhaps he wasn’t innocent. But at least he hadn’t meant for things to go so badly for Grace and his wife. And anyway, Grace chose his own sins, didn’t he?

He was losing blood. Something would have to be done, quickly.

The man drew his face back, standing at full height. He pulled the scarf away and spoke now in his normal, higher voice, London accent gone, the slight Scottish inflection returning. “His wife’s name is Cynthia.”

 “Cynth –” Timmins wheezed out the syllable, which turned into a gasp. None of this was making sense. The man was playing jokes.

“Yes. My daughter.”

A wave of something horrible, a moral nausea, washed over Timmins, on top of the physical pain.

The man pulled off the spectacles and pocketed them, withdrawing a red velvet case, which he opened. From it he took a monocle, which he returned to its place, gold rim resting below graying right eyebrow.

Timmins’ mind raced. Havelock was not Havelock; there was no Havelock. No plans had been stolen; no offer made to Hitler or anyone. Dunbar! Dunbar after all. Such lies he had told, not just words, his whole being, an act, a deception. The trembling arm. The steaming kettle. The case of nerves.

“You’d scarcely recognize her now,” Dunbar said.

But no. Timmins could not have done that, what Dunbar was suggesting. Not to Cynthia. No, this was an obscene, bloody-minded joke. Not funny at all. She of all people, who had seen the good in his heart.

He thought, God could not be so cruel as to allow it.

“Oh, I suspected it was you,” Dunbar said. “But I couldn’t be sure, and you never would have confessed, not to me.”

Timmins thought he was in Dunbar’s hotel room, with no ventilation, and walls that seemed to move inward as they rose, bringing with them a darkness. He was afraid, because anything that was gathered into that darkness would never be seen or thought of again.

“God willing, there’s still hope for her,” Dunbar said.

Still hope. Yes. Let’s go to a doctor. Hope for all of us.

“They wanted me to be the one to catch you, because I knew you, you see?” Dunbar shivered as if with disgust. “But I tell you, I find the whole thing revolting. I’ve killed before. But I don’t relish revenge. I know you’re supposed to, like in the books. But I don’t. Even though you bloody well deserve it. And you won’t understand but we’ll need allies, the French, every ally we can get. You and your dirty business had to be stopped.

“But it won’t make her well, get her out of that place, will it? And then on top of everything, I got to know you again, to understand you a bit after all these years, why you are what you are, which made it harder.”

You understand. I was taking care of myself, because you have to, because no one else will. You know I didn’t mean to hurt her.

 “To be honest, I’d hoped you might be clever enough to figure it out, not come here tonight, and I wouldn’t have to do this. I could have told them I couldn’t get proof, that I had my suspicions, but they didn’t pan out. And they’d have assigned someone else. But here we are.”

Dunbar seemed to steel himself, raised the gun. No sign of a tremor. The man was rock steady.

Timmins made a frantic, momentous effort to speak, achieving the weakest of whispers: “Listen. She must —”

There came three more shattering noises, explosions inside Timmins’ body. Tendrils of liquid fire stretching to all four limbs.

Through wavering red sheets of agony that remained before his vision, Timmins could make out Dunbar bending and kneeling beside him, heard him speak, not unkindly.  “She must what?”

 “— get better.”

Something warm pressed down upon Timmins’ hand. For a moment, he heard nothing but the drip-drip in the back of the room and his own shuddery breathing.

Then he heard Dunbar speak.  “Yes. We must believe she will.”

Timmins wanted to speak again, to ask if his father had returned after all, for he imagined he glimpsed now a tall, familiar figure behind Dunbar, bag slung jauntily over the shoulder.

Darkness arrived, and all questions ceased.


Philip Ivory studied literature at Columbia University. He teaches creative writing with The Writers Studio in Tucson, Arizona. His fiction has appeared in Menacing Hedge, Two Cities Review, Ghost Parachute, The AirgonautLiterally Stories and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His blog is writeyourselfsane.com.


One thought on ““The Swamp Rat” Dark Spy Thriller by Philip Ivory

  1. Pingback: THE SWAMP RAT: New fiction published | Write Yourself Sane

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