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An Appointment with Orloff

It was shortly before midnight that I first met Orloff. A cold, wet evening in February. He was standing outside the dingy bar, hunched against the weather in a dark and disreputable overcoat. Even at fifty yards I knew it was disreputable because only disreputable overcoats were ever seen in that part of Stockholm. Here, near the docks, we were far from the clean boulevards of the centre of the city and, this late at night, only people like Orloff and me and a few third rank, teenage hookers were to be seen. On closer approach, one could see the man’s frayed cuffs and the stains down his front. It was of a piece with the rest. Badly scuffed, down-at-heels boots with the uppers beginning to come away from the soles. His flat, seaman’s cap was pulled well down, the shiny peak partly obscuring his face but not the abundant and unkempt beard and moustache.

A sudden gust of wind from the Baltic brought a flurry of cold rain and caused him to turn his back. I was pleased that he had apparently not yet noticed me and that I was able to observe a little longer – in my profession, observing one’s acquaintances can be important. The little light that shone through the bar windows illuminated him better now he had moved and I could see that he was taller than I had at first thought – at least six feet – and broad to match. The hunched up attitude had been deceptive. He was younger than I had thought too, no more than thirty or so, and, despite his present posture, I could sense an alertness and tension that might be more his usual bearing. I imagined that he might be a tough customer in a fight. I was glad that he needed my help.

From my doorway I could see that the street was empty and I felt that now, while his back was turned, was the moment to introduce myself. I approached quietly, my footsteps muffled by rubber soles and the hiss of rain.


He whirled and partially crouched with astonishing speed for one so big. His hands had never been in his pockets. Now they were clenched and thrust forward in the manner of a professional fighter. His head was thrown back and obsidian eyes gleamed at me from beneath bushy brows.

I stepped back a pace – but not so far as to suggest fear.

“Grant,” I said.“ Let’s go inside.”

He relaxed a fraction but I didn’t wait to watch his reactions and turned and pushed my way into the bar. He followed and we found a table in a corner. I noticed that he sat facing the door. Melodrama? An accident? I suspected that Orloff never did anything by accident.

Drinks were brought, in chipped mugs. I ignored mine but, hot as it must have been, Orloff downed half of his in one gulping swig. The open, ham sandwich he had ordered almost disappeared into an enormous fist. His nails were broken and dirty and the hands, themselves, were ingrained with dirt. I would have thought twice about touching a wheel barrow with hands like that but Orloff showed no such sensitivity towards his food.

But it was the enormous hands that I noticed most.

“Can you get it?” he asked.

“Yes. But, first, I want to know why I should give it to you. Talk.”

He talked and I listened – and watched. I needed to assess him and the best way of doing this was to listen and watch carefully. His accent. His use of words. His grammar. The body language. His eyes. The things he thought were important. He spoke nearly half an hour with only one brief interruption whilst more drinks and another sandwich was brought.

He appearance belied his personality. I gathered that he had attended university in Vilnius and had obtained a degree in law. He had the lawyer’s slow, thoughtful way of speaking, choosing his words with a care that did not derive from his less than perfect command of English but from a clear desire to say exactly what he wanted. He told me about his life, of the hardships and difficulties, not dwelling on them or seeking sympathy but merely informing me. There was an accepting toughness born of an early upbringing in the slums of the Lithuanian capital. He spoke of his family. There was real anger when he spoke of his family. But there was a fairness in his denunciation of those who had injured them which suggested an understanding of the pressures which everyone – even the police – suffered under the Soviet system. There was optimism, even when he spoke of his recent life aboard the Vladimir Serov. He told me about the things I needed to know and ignored those things which were irrelevant. He didn’t demand or plead but carefully and thoroughly explained what he wanted and just as carefully and thoroughly justified why I should provide it.

As he spoke, the obsidian eyes lost the alert hardness I had noticed in the street and took on the softer blackness of ripe fruit. And the mouth softened and smiled the unforced smile of a child.

I liked Orloff. Orloff engendered trust.

“And, so, you see,” he concluded, “a British passport, and support from your government, would allow me to help you, too.”

He was right. The information he could provide would be of enormous assistance, but I couldn’t help with his other plans – at that time, in the 1960s, the British Government did not support assassinations, still less personal revenge. This was, you will recall, before the ‘war on terror’ and the compromises with individual and civil liberties which have, it seems, become, all too frequently, some of the essential tools of the security services.

So I asked him, “How much support?”

“One thousand pound sterling. Each year.”

“A thousand pounds is a lot of money,” I said.

“It’s worth it,” he said. “It’s worth more than that, in fact, but I could never explain bigger payments away. Not that I think you would stoop to blackmail or anything, but I can ... er... is launder the word? I can launder a thousand pounds a year. I was a lawyer, you remember.”

He was also no fool.

I said, “I’ll have the passport on Wednesday, the day after tomorow. Come here again. Same time. And I’ll talk to Mason about the thousand but it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

“I hope not. It’s worth more than that. A lot more.”

“I know.” There was no point in pretending otherwise.

“But I need the passport tomorrow. We sail on Wednesday morning.”

Tuesday would have been perfectly possible. Indeed, I had his ‘new’ passport, issued by the British consul in Marseilles to Vladimir Secorian four years previously, in my pocket. But I didn’t want to give the impression that we were too much of a pushover.

I pretended to think. “Can you get ashore on Wednesday morning?”

“I will not be allowed ashore if the ship is – do you say, under orders?”

“We do. Or, at least, they do in the navy. I don’t. Very well,” I said. “Tomorrow then.” I stood up. I had not touched my drink. “Wait ten minutes and then leave,” I said.

“I’ll give it five minutes.”

“Ten.” It was important he should learn the basics of service discipline. He needed to know who was boss and his obedience needed to be a habit. “ It’s your first instruction,” I added.

I didn’t wait for a response. I nodded briefly and walked out of the bar into the rain. It is never a good idea to allow time for any possible argument you cannot win. I recall that as a junior officer on my first ship, I had been given a rocket from the senior officer of the watch. A drunken rating had come aboard and I had told him to get below. “You should have told the watchman to send him below,” I had been told. “He might have refused your order and then you’d have had no alternative but to have him on a more serious charge than drunkenness.”

I had not forgotten the lesson but I waited a few yards away to see if Orloff obeyed. He did.

Tuesday evening was still cold but the rain had stopped. The antiquated, gas lamps of the dockland area didn’t provide much illumination but the lights of the bar shone through windows that were heavily misted up. Orloff was sitting at the same table we had occupied on the Monday.

“You told me eleven o’clock. It’s is ten past eleven,” he said. “Such carelessness has caused many men their lives.”

“Not in Sweden. It’s a free country.” I didn’t add that he had not had much experience of free countries. But he was right, I should not have kept him waiting. Orloff had known all about despotic governments and I apologised. But it had been deliberate. I had needed to know he wasn’t followed to our meeting. And to know, also, that he could handle the stress engendered by my late arrival.

“Do you have it?”

“Yes.” I gave him the passport and he examined it carefully.

“It is good. Perhaps I look a bit younger. My beard is not so ... big.” He flipped through the pages. “I see I have travelled a lot. I must make sure I know these places. What is this one?” He pointed to a stamp in Chinese characters.


“And the date?”

“17 May, 1960. But you can’t remember exactly, can you? May or June 1960 will do, I think.”

“Yes. One cannot remember everything, can one?”

He continued to look through he passport and paused to examine the splendidly evocative words inside the front cover.

“I like that. It sounds very important. I wonder if the head of the police in Vilnius can read?” He laughed, “Perhaps he can read, but I think Her Britannic Majesty’s request will not protect me from him if I’m arrested.”

I said, “Do you need any information on the places you are supposed to have visited?”

“I don’t think so. I never leave the docks areas and they are all the same, no? I can make up enough to satisfy anyone who is not very suspicious. And if they are very suspicious, it will not help me if I know the name of the bar where I had my breakfast in Singapore more than a year ago.”

I nodded. “Good-bye, Orloff.” I hesitated a moment. “Good luck.”

“Thank you.” He nodded briefly.

“Wait ten minutes,” I said and left him.

Ten minutes later, I followed him as he made his way back to the Vladimir Serov. He was hunched up against the cold. A light sleet had started to fall, its flakes shining as they passed through the pools of light from the street lamps. He didn’t look back. He exchanged greetings with the watchman by the gangway and disappeared on board.

I never saw Orloff again but a few years later, there was a circular about the death of Antanas Smetona, the head of the Lithuanian secret service. By 1980, there was no longer anything very secret about the Lithuanian secret service and, apparently, Smetona had been found battered to death near the docks in Klaipeda. No weapon had been found and I couldn’t help remembering Orloff’s story about how his daughter had been raped to death in the notorious Kanelsky prison in Vilnius and remembering, too, his enormous hands that I had last seen flipping through a British passport while he spoke of the grandeur of the preliminary exhortation. The circular didn’t mention Orloff, of course, and I wondered ... would he have waited so long?

And then, last week, I read about Orloff again.

It was in the recently published memoirs of a former ‘spook’ as they are now called. The service had worked hard to prevent their publication but had failed – and a mediocre book of little interest received a lot more publicity than would otherwise have been the case.

It was in a single paragraph half way through the book in which the author related his experiences in the Baltic in early 1990s. The fifth chapter mentioned the death in Vilnius of one Constantin Orloff whilst resisting arrest on suspicion of involvement in money laundering to finance the drug trade. The book said that, with the end of the Soviet Union’s hegemony in the Baltic region, the British authorities were co operating with their Lithuanian counterparts to smash the drugs racket and ...

It was a pity – I was sure Orloff wouldn’t be involved in drugs but I knew he could launder money – he had proved that with his thousand a year – and it was important to co-operate with the new authorities if we were to facilitate that country’s entry to the European Union. Moreover, a thousand a year is a thousand a year. You see, I can launder money as well as anyone – and if you are going to self-publish you have to find the money somehow.

Word Count: 2196
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