I don’t like squares. Four streets intersecting gives eight exits. Exits are the bane of my profession.
I watch her flipping through the document, thinking that if it was important, she wouldn’t be perusing them in public as though she was reading Good Housekeeping. That’s the trouble with sitting in one place. When she’d been on the move, most of my mind was occupied with the tradecraft of keeping her in sight without being noticed by her. Now my mind was free to ask why a girl who suspected she might be followed would make herself conspicuous by being the only stationary person in the square. Everyone else who wasn’t in one of the shops or cafes was hurrying to their next refuge from the February chill.
I think about sidling over to sneak a glance over her shoulder, but she’s positioned herself so I’d have to stand in the pool. Conspicuous as she might be, I could get no closer without making myself even more conspicuous.
I study her posture. She’s focused on the document but I see no tension in her half sitting, half standing posture. If she’s reading orders for a daring mission or secrets that will topple governments, she’s hiding it well. It could mean she was a mistress of the art of inscrutability. It could mean I’ve spent the afternoon following her to collect a directive about a new expense claim form.
I look at her shoes beneath the hem of her coat.
They look more fashionable than comfortable. Not what she’d be wearing if she was collecting something that might get her chased.
I sip my tea, beginning to relax. Her shoes tell me I’m on a fool’s errand. Whatever is on the paper in her hand, it’s of no interest to the Firm.
It’s hard to tell from this distance, but was that a ghost of a smile crossing her lips? Something in he documents has amused her.
I’ve never heard of anyone being amused by a new expense claim form.
Did her eyes flick toward me? If I didn’t imagine it, she’s just told me that it’s not the documents that amuse her but the fact that I’ve devoted the afternoon to them. Which would only amuse her if it was exactly what she and her own Firm wanted me to be doing while their real business is being carried out elsewhere.
I raise the cup to my lips to hide the frown that is in danger of giving her an involuntary answer. I’m so intent on her that I don’t see the man until he’s right in front of me, leaning on my table and waving the Manchester Guardian. The excitement in his face is inches from my own, blotting the girl from my sight.
“Have you heard?” He’s so excited he’s almost shouting. “The Reichstag burned down last night. They’re fighting in the streets of Berlin!”
“What?” I’m trying to peer round him without making it too obvious that I’m more interested in the girl than the complete stranger jabbering in my face.
Then what he said hits me. “Who did it?”
“No one knows,” he says. “The Reds blame the Brownshirts. The Brownshirts blame the Reds. It’s all an utter pickle.”
“Good Heavens,” is all I can think of to say. Half the Firm will be running around with their hair on fire.
I now doubt that those documents refer to a new expense claim form.
The man has moved on to another table. He’s either decided that the Reichstag fire has made him a town crier for the day, or…
The girl is gone.
I look at the man, but his back is to me as he brandishes the Manchester Guardian at two middle aged women who look like they don’t understand what he’s so exercised about.
I hurry out into the square but I know I’m too late.