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Vengeance in Venice

The young lady—Professor Gubichev always referred to Jane Grayshott in this way—had fixed him up as comfortably as she could for his sojourn in the boot of her diplomatic car, with a Dunlopillo mattress and cushions, but it was difficult to change his position and he was afraid of getting cramp.

He heard the Embassy garage door being rolled up and felt the car begin to move, crunching over the short drive and out through the guarded gates. The professor groaned slightly when the first twinge of cramp took him as the car passed through the outskirts of Belgrade, and hastily rolled over, determined to keep his mind occupied with the events of the past ten days. And earlier, for his escape had been some time in the planning.

It was he who had made the first approach—a very tentative one—when he had found himself for a few minutes alone with the scientific counsellor at the British Embassy in Moscow, a man named Lancing, who had received the low-voiced suggestion without any change of expression and had gone on to make arrangements for another meeting while apparently chatting about personalities present at the reception. 

It was later decided that Gubichev would make available to Lancing copies of some drawings of planned Russian anti-missile missiles with which Gubichev, as a high-ranking scientific officer in the Soviet Ministry of Science and Technology, was closely concerned. He had no difficulty in obtaining copies of the drawings, and had added a long note in Russian on the difficulties likely to be encountered at the development stage as well as the hoped-for capability of the weapon system.

Getting the papers out of the ministry was also fairly easy, because of his security grade, and the next time he went to the British Embassy, on the occasion of the visit of a prominent British scientist, he left them, by arrangement, in the pocket of a light raincoat in the cloakroom. 

The response from London was clear and enthusiastic: Gubichev would be welcome in the United Kingdom for permanent residence as a political refugee, and he would be adequately protected. The problem now was how and when to defect.

Gubichev was one of the leading defence scientists in the Soviet Union, and the Russians would never agree to allow him a safe conduct if he simply took refuge in the British Embassy and declared he was seeking political asylum. At the same time, they had not the slightest reason to suspect him of any such plan, since he lived very well in the feather-bedded ambience of Soviet top technologists, and was married, with two daughters, to whom he was devoted. What the KGB probably did not know—because both parties had every reason to keep it a secret—was that his wife, much younger than the professor, was having an affair with an army colonel, and planning to divorce her husband and keep the girls with her. But the professor knew, and now he was resigned to parting with his family.

His motive for defection had taken many years to gain decisive weight in his mind: he was genuinely afraid that if the new Soviet defensive measures were fully and successfully developed, the Council of Ministers might at some time blunder into a nuclear adventure, and he had no doubt that this would mean the end—no matter what happened elsewhere—of the motherland he loved. 

He worked closely with the service ministers and could see them gaining influence over the aging Politburo all the time. He knew how little they were aware of the growing strength of feelings of independence throughout the vast, disunited Soviet Union and among the satellite countries. They did not seem to realise that any nuclear war—even one they could win—would be uncontrollable. It would not bring all the separate republics together for a national cause, as had happened in 1941, but would allow them to burst apart in a frenzied search for survival, and lay them open to invasion by China and what was left of the nations of Europe and North America. Muscovite ‘democratic centralism’ would be battered to pieces. He had to redress the nuclear imbalance now, before it was too late.

The car had left Belgrade by the motorway and was following the Sava valley towards Sabac when the cramp caught him again, agonisingly. Hastily, he swallowed the quinine pills the Embassy doctor had given him, but his mouth was dry. With his clenched fist he beat against the back of the rear seats, and almost immediately heard the car engine slow down as the small Volvo swung off the road and stopped. 

Jane did not risk raising the tailgate but opened the nearside rear door and pushed flat the seats so that she could see the professor groaning and sweating in the boot. She bit her lip. Cars were passing, not many, for there is never much private traffic on the inland roads in Jugoslavia, but there was a danger that a police patrol might stop—from the best motives, perhaps—and be more than a little interested to see that the boot carried a passenger.

She reached in and pulled the professor’s shoulders onto the area formed by the flattened seats. ‘Try to straighten your leg,’ she said quickly in Russian. ‘Brace it against the back of the car. I’ll stop when I can find a bit of cover and get you out.’ She threw a car rug over him and re-started the car.

The very fact of having been able to move more freely brought some relief, and he pushed his foot hard against the rear wall of the boot, wincing at the pain. But that seemed to help. He waited while Jane turned off the road, bumped up an uneven lane, and stopped. A moment later the tailgate was opened and she was hauling him unceremoniously out of the car and into the cover of some trees, where she helped him to walk up and down until the pain disappeared entirely.

He stammered. ‘The quinine pills. I’ve swallowed them but I can’t get them down.’

She laughed affectionately, opened a large picnic basket which lay on the front passenger seat and mixed him a plastic beaker of whisky and water. He gulped it down gratefully.

‘Thanks,’ he said. The air was cold and stimulating, and Gubichev breathed it in happily. ‘You’re very good to me,’ he said.

She did not say, ‘It’s my job,’ which would have been true, but ‘You’re our guest’, which made him smile. They had treated him as such during those days hidden in the top floor of the Embassy. He had had a sort of flat, formerly occupied by the butler, with its own separate bathroom. Next door was the windowless and armour-plated cipher-room, especially protected against electronic eavesdropping, and both were part of the maximum security system, visited only by UK-based staff. Here he had had long talks with the young lady and a man who came out from London to supervise his escape. This was Peter Craig, with whom he had had the debriefing sessions, and to whom he had explained his motives. 

Craig had also, of course, encouraged him to talk as much as possible about his work, and the Ambassador and Lady Clandon had paid him a social call with caviar, smoked salmon and iced vodka, and talked about everything except the one thing that was on everybody’s mind—the dangers involved in trying to smuggle him out of the country. Sir Robert said he had told the Jugoslav Foreign Ministry that Gubichev had been granted temporary asylum, and had asked for safe passage to allow him to be flown to Heathrow. The British were fully aware that the request would not be allowed, but he could thus gain time for Craig to complete his plans for the escape.


Before they again took the road Jane gave him sandwiches and more whisky with water, reassured him and made him as comfortable as possible. Then she patted his arm, blew him a kiss and closed the tailgate. She reminded him of his elder daughter Natasha, whose loss was a pain he would have to suffer indefinitely. Indeed, the young lady had been almost like a daughter to him during the past week, talking to him in her fluent, Oxbridge Russian, (so like the elegant language his own mother, born in St Petersburg, had spoken), playing him cassettes of classical music, working over chess problems with him, persuading him to part with his heavy moustache, getting the Embassy doctor to prescribe pills for sleeping, high blood pressure and this horrible cramp, and making a special excursion to buy him Russian cigarettes and halva, the sticky sweet for which he had a mild addiction.

It was she, too, who had introduced Craig, when he arrived from England. It was a little confusing. The young lady, Jane Grayshott, was an SIS officer, that much was clear. She had been briefed, after Gubichev’s meetings with Lancing in Moscow, to contact him during the international scientific congress in Belgrade and make sure that he was still determined to defect; and when he had given her that assurance she had operated a clever little plan to get him into her car after the reception without the KGB security guards, who had been attached to him ‘for his personal safety’, being able to intervene or even follow her as she drove off. The plan had worked as smoothly as silk, and within a quarter of an hour he had been surreptitiously smuggled into the Embassy and was safe—for the time being.

And Craig? He was an oddly impressive man, a little frightening at first, with his broken nose and scarred cheek, but friendly and sympathetic. He apparently was not an intelligence officer at all, but a sort of policeman attached to the Foreign Office. He appeared to be obeyed without question and highly regarded by everybody in the Embassy, from His Excellency downwards; it was apparently Craig who had planned the escape route on which the professor was now embarked, and who had staged a diversion to make the whole thing possible.

The cramp came back, but the quinine was at last having an effect, and the warmth of the whisky helped to keep the pangs under control. Again, he sought to keep his mind off his discomforts. What had the young lady said when he asked what the next step would be?

She had smiled. ‘I can’t tell you very much, for security reasons. I’m sure you’ll understand that. But the next step is a rendezvous in about half an hour—and I’ll have to hurry, now that we’ve had this break. I’ll stop on the road just before we enter a small market town on the main road from Belgrade to Sarajevo. A man will be waiting for us, dressed like a tourist, with a rucksack and camera and so forth. You will call him Joe, and he’ll take you to the main bus station outside the town, where you’ll both board a coach which takes you right down to the coast road and then follows it northwards, towards Split. He’ll tell you then what has to be done, to get you to a safe place.’

‘Safe?’ he had asked nervously. How could anywhere in this country be safe?

She had laughed again suddenly, and looked very young and pretty. ‘You couldn’t be safer,’ she assured him, and patted his shoulder. ‘Now we must go. Unless you need to relieve yourself, in which case use those bushes.’

When the car stopped at last at a kilometre stone she opened the tailgate, helped him out and again made him walk up and down while she talked to a young man, tanned and with long hair and a straggly beard, who had appeared from the depths of a storm ditch. 

‘This is Joe Walker,’ she explained. ‘Notionally, he’s your son, and so you are Dr Francis Walker, a history don. Joe’ll look after you. Don’t worry about the motor-coach. There are far too many of them on the Jugoslav roads at this time of year, and far too many kinds of police, as you go from one republic into another, for anyone to be able to organize an efficient country-wide search. Besides, you speak English, and you look quite different without your lovely moustache, so no one would recognize you anyway. We must say good-bye. You’ll see Peter Craig in London.’

‘It won’t be the same,’ he said earnestly, holding her slim hands in his. ‘You have been a good friend, a dear, good friend. Whatever happens to me, I shall never forget you.’

‘I’ll come back to England for some leave soon, so you’ll see me then.’ She gave him a little hug and kissed his cheek. ‘Go with God,’ she added, this time in Russian. Then she got quickly into her car, reversed so that she could make a three-point turn, and with a wave of her hand was off up the mountain road with gravel spurting from under the wheels. The young man watched her departure with respect in his hard blue eyes. ‘She’s great, isn’t she?’ He spoke in English.

‘You are an intelligence officer, too?’

Joe nodded, as he led the professor back into the cover of the trees. ‘I’m a probationer. Only joined two years ago. Now listen, sir.’ (Everybody seemed to treat him with such respect; it was rather odd, but comforting.) ‘From now on, until we reach the next stage, you’re my father. My operational name is Joseph Walker, you’re Francis, same name, 56 years old, born in Cambridge, England, and a lecturer in social history at Cambridge University. O.K? Here are your passport, diary and wallet, with some Jugoslav money in it and several credit cards. If for any reason we should get separated—which God forbid—find your way down to the coast, use your money and credit cards to get a hotel room, and wire your bank—its name is on the bank card—for enough money to pay for a ticket home. There’ll be no questions. In your wallet there’s a notional letter from your loving son Joe—that’s me, remember—which gives your home address in Cambridge. Contact that address for any help you need on arrival, although you’ll have been picked up at Gatwick in all probability.’ He looked at the older man anxiously. ‘Is all this clear, sir?’

‘Yes, thank you. It has all been admirably worked out.’

‘Good. Next thing.’ Joe was unpacking his bulging rucksack as he spoke. ‘Please take off your jacket and trousers and put these on. Oh, and the shirt. And there are some shoes somewhere.’ So that was why the young lady had taken his measurements. The clothes were old, worn tweeds, with a woollen check shirt, which felt pleasingly warm as he pulled it on, and the shoes walking brogues which fitted him remarkably well. Finally, the hat. It was a Tyrolese felt with a chamois brush in the band. He protested, smiling, but put it on.

Joe stood back and looked him over. ‘You look the adventurous, absent-minded don to perfection. But your face is too pale. I’ve got some oil here. Rub some of that in, particularly where they shaved your moustache off. And don’t forget your hands.’

When the transformation was complete Joe packed the discarded clothes into the top of his rucksack and they began to walk down the road, looking for somewhere to dump them. They came to a deep culvert which in winter carried snow water under the road, and with the help of a torn-off branch pushed the professor’s clothes several feet into the tunnel. Then they walked on, through pine woods, with autumn crocuses glinting among the dark trees.

‘How did you come out here, Mr Walker?’ asked Gubichev.

‘It’s Joe, remember? And I’ll be calling you Dad from now on, when anyone could be listening. O.K., then. I was doing a hiking tour down the coast, from Zadar to Dubrovnik, and had just signalled my arrival there (which is routine procedure), when I got a message whistling back telling me to stay where I was and wait for orders. They’d thought of me because I speak Serbo-Croat, you see, and because I was out here already. The following day a friend of mine flew in with the clothes and the documents—they hadn’t facilities in the Belgrade Embassy for kitting you out properly. And he briefed me. They’re giving me an extra week’s leave after I deliver you safely to the next chap along the line,’ he added, with satisfaction.

The professor smiled. ‘And you can’t tell me about the next stage yet?’

‘No, sir. Need-to-know rule. But we’ll have nearly four hours in the coach before that happens, so I’ll fill you in on anything you want to know, like news of your notional family—my brothers and sisters, and so on. Or you can sleep. I’ve got a pill for you.’

The next stage was extraordinarily easy. They waited outside the little town at the pullman station until the coach arrived. To Gubichev’s surprise it was quite unlike the rather run-down buses he had seen in the suburbs of Belgrade, being impressively new-looking and having comfortable, reclinable seats. Joe paid the conductor for the tickets and put the professor beside him in the window seat. He stretched out luxuriously. The driver sounded the horn in a long blast and they swung out of the square and found the highway to Sarajevo.

‘I know little about this country,’ said the professor. ‘It’s a union of republics, isn’t it? Like the Soviet Union? In Belgrade we were in Serbia, I think.’

‘Yes. There are six republics, five nationalities, four religions and three languages. Easy to remember: six, five, four, three. Oh, and two alphabets, Latin and Cyrillic. All the individual republics are fiercely independent—as far as Belgrade will let them be.’ Like Russia, thought the professor, but quite, quite different.

‘So they have their own governments, police forces, taxes, border controls and so on. Which,’ added Joe in a lower voice, ‘makes some things much easier than they might otherwise be, eh, Dad?’

‘And Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia?’

‘Actually, it’s the capital of the Herzegovina part, and it’s an interesting town, full of mosques and a souk; some people wear Turkish dress, as they have for four hundred years. It’s in a sort of bowl, with high mountains all round it; very good skiing, I gather. What a pity we shan’t have more time to look around, but our coach only waits for a few minutes to let people go to the loo, and then goes to Mostar, which is spectacular. That’s on the Neretva river, and we follow its gorge down to the coast road.’

* * *

Gubichev only awoke when the coach was vociferously announcing its arrival in Sarajevo and later, on the trip down the long curving valley to Mostar, where they saw a couple of eagles cruising along the steep escarpments which flanked the road, he went to sleep again. There was another wait at the coach station, and Joe bought beer and sandwiches for the next part of the journey, fifty kilometres down the Neretva valley to the modern town of Kardeljevo, where they joined the coast road.

It was just before the town that Gubichev began to feel the beginning of panic. So far, all had gone well, but there could only be one reason for bringing him this long distance from Belgrade: they were going to embark him on a boat, and surely every craft leaving the coastal waters to cross to Italy would be stopped and searched. The coastline itself, as he had seen on the map, was far too long and indented, and no doubt too infested with coastal and leisure traffic, for any concerted attempt to stop clandestine embarcation, but further out, beyond the islands, the patrols would be able to exert a real control. He felt suddenly as if he were on the bank of a dark, cold river, which he had to swim across through a current that might easily sweep him away. He thought with fleeting nostalgia of his comfortable flat in Moscow, his dacha in the forest and the well-planned laboratories. If he were caught he knew he would never see them again, and would never know freedom either. He shivered. 

Joe Walker noticed his mood, and worried. The old man had got to keep his nerve for the last act. He began to talk to him cheerfully, pointing out a castle on a high pinnacle above the river and asking Gubichev about hunting in Russia. It was not an inspired or even a subtle tactic, but the professor appreciated the effort and forced his mind away from the immediate future.

They were on the coast road, high above the sea, and passing a turning that led down into the small town of Podgora, when Walker pointed with a smile at a large bus which was discharging a party of Royal Navy officers and senior ratings. The bus waited while they formed up, behind a commander in full dress uniform, and began to march down towards the town, carrying among them, in the hands of two chief petty officers, a large model boat. The bus driver spoke on the address system and the passengers cheered as he continued on his way. Gubichev asked what was happening.

‘The driver explained,’ said Walker. ‘There’s a British frigate in Split harbour, on a goodwill mission, and the captain thought it would be a nice gesture to make a presentation to the new naval museum in Podgora. It’s a model of one of the craft used by the Special Boat Sections for running spies and saboteurs into Jugoslavia during the war. We collaborated with Tito’s partisans quite a lot, as you know.’

‘Did the driver explain all that?’ asked Gubichev, puzzled.

Joe was brought up short for a moment. He had let his tongue run away with him. ‘It was in the press,’ he said vaguely. As he well knew, the friendly gesture had been offered by the Navy three weeks earlier, as soon as it had been decided that the professor’s escape would coincide with the scientific conference in Belgrade. The naval visit to Split had been only one of several schemes put forward by the specialist planners at SIS headquarters in London, but when the Jugoslavs welcomed the idea the other plans were dropped.

‘So near,’ muttered Gubichev, ‘but so far. If I could take the place of one of those officers!’

‘Never mind, Dad,’ said Walker, and lowered his voice. ‘We’ve got something just as good lined up for you. I’d love to tell you all about it, but I mustn’t, not yet.’

‘Of course I understand, Joe; I’ll just have to be patient.’

They came to the first stop in Split, right down on the harbour, and when they got out of the bus to stretch their legs they found themselves facing the magnificent spectacle of Diocletian’s palace, which forms the old town, with its walls extending down to the water. Then they continued around the bay to the island town of Trogir, passing HMS Shropshire at her mooring.


They left the bus at the pullman station, just short of the bridge which leads across a canal to the island on which the town is situated. The professor was very stiff when they stepped down from the bus, and not sorry to see the end of his reclining seat, in spite of its well-padded upholstery, but he began to feel easier as they walked over the bridge to the old town. They passed the market, with craftware displayed for the tourists, and entered old Trogir through a gateway in the ancient wall. It was a delightful Venetian town in miniature, with renaissance houses, tall spires and an arcaded square. On the other side of the town, beyond the further sea-gate, was a broad promenade, lined with palm trees, running along the waterfront opposite the island of Ciovo. A number of short jetties, projecting from the promenade, provided a tiny marina for visiting yachts. Joe walked slowly along the promenade to an open-air café facing the marina, where he ordered coffee. Few of the tables were occupied, and there was little activity among the boats, but he explained that most of the sailing craft returned at sunset and then the street became more lively.

The professor was very happy with the scene as he found it. It was pleasant to sit quietly in the evening light, watching the seagulls and the movements of sails on the water as the first yachts came in.

A fair-haired girl, English-looking, came to sit at a table near them, and the professor could almost feel Joe tensing as he glanced sideways at her. She sat for a moment watching the marina, then gave them a casual glance, took off the bright red straw hat she was wearing and shook her hair free. It was a charming gesture, and for Joe it was a welcome message.

‘We’re in the clear,’ he muttered, and called for the bill. They walked briskly across the promenade to the water, where they could see a small motor-cruiser, flying a British yacht club burgee, tied up at one of the jetties. A man was standing in the cockpit and looked up when they approached. ‘Hullo, Joe,’ he said (although they had never met). ‘Nice to see you. This is your father, I suppose. Glad to meet you, sir.’

‘Hi, Colin. Yes, this is Dad. Dad, this is Colin Stannard.’

‘Hullo. Come aboard.’ As he helped the professor to step over the counter, Stannard took a quick look around. The girl was walking away towards the sea-gate, swinging her hat.

Stannard led the way, without giving the professor a chance to look at the neat wheel-house, with its gleaming controls, and went into the saloon, which also served as sleeping quarters. ‘Professor, I want you to go through that little door into the forepeak. You’ll find a light switch on your left, and a mattress and pillows. Just settle down there for the time being, O.K.?’ 

He closed the door behind him and went back to the cockpit to look around once more. Joe was there, smiling broadly. ‘Not a soul seems to be interested in us. I’d better go, Colin. Say goodbye to the old boy. I’ve become quite fond of him. He’s got a lot of bottle. Tell him that, will you? From me.’ 

Stannard watched him go, scanned the surroundings again and went forward to give the professor Joe’s message. Gubichev was lying on the mattress under the weak light of the lamp.


‘You’re pretty tired,’ said Stannard. ‘I’ll get you some slivovic. It’s all I’ve got at the moment, but you’ll soon have all the gin and whisky you can drink.’ He laughed at Gubichev’s puzzled expression. ‘You can come out when we clear the harbour. We probably shan’t even be stopped. There are too many boats around. Just stay here until I call you.’ 

Stannard brought him a glass of the plum brandy and some biscuits, which he consumed gratefully and lay down.

Later, when Stannard opened the hatch it was quite dark except for the lights in the saloon, but as Gubichev went out into the cockpit to breathe some fresh air, he saw the glimmer of the red and green riding lights on the mast above and beyond, bright stars in a velvet dark sky. The cruiser was swishing through the water at a decorous pace. Astern, Gubichev could see in the distance lights on the islands of Ciovo and Solta. There seemed to be no other vessel in sight. Stannard was above him in the wheel-house, and Gubichev could hear the tapping of a Morse key, which went on for some time. Then silence, except for the faint sounds of the answering message. 

Stannard came down the steps into the cockpit. 

‘Everything’s going well,’ he said. ‘We stay on this course for the next half hour. I’ll put the kettle on.’ 

He made cocoa and they drank it together, warming their hands on the hot mugs.

‘Where are you taking me?’ asked Gubichev.

Stannard laughed. ‘That’s my big surprise’, he said. ‘You’ll be all right now.’

When the half hour was up he took a flare from a locker in the saloon and fired it upwards. The star broke out far above them and fell in a shower of red lights. After a minute he fired a second flare, and stared astern into the night. ‘There she is,’ he cried, delighted.

Gubichev could see nothing, but within minutes he could hear the faint thrumming of engines and at last saw a tall shape blotting out the stars. A brilliant light came on for a few seconds, searching for and finding them, then went dark again. 

A voice called out of the night, ‘Straight ahead as you lie at ten knots. Acknowledge.’

Stannard picked up a loud-hailer, switched it on and called back, ‘My course is straight ahead at ten repeat ten knots. Over.’

The masts and towers of a warship were making up on them fast. They could now see lights and hear the engine calls from the bridge as the ship slowed and crept up alongside. Rope ends were dropped, and Stannard made them fast to the motor-cruiser’s deck cleats. Two men came swarming down, followed by a bosun’s chair, into which they strapped the professor. He had no time to thank Stannard before he was lifted from the deck and swung high into the air. The two sailors were hauled up on their ropes at the same time, and as he looked down Gubichev saw the little boat turn away and accelerate, quickly becoming lost in the darkness.

He was lowered on to the deck and greeted by a man with three gold rings on his sleeve. ‘Welcome, Doctor Walker. I am the Captain. Follow me, please.’ 

He led the way down. There were few men around, and those who were seemed to be there to make him comfortable in his tiny cabin, bring him food and drink, show him his bathroom and tell him how to call for assistance if he needed any. But he did not. He had seen the hat band of one of the sailors. HMS Shropshire. As the young lady had said, he could scarcely be safer now.

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