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
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
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
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
“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
“One thousand pound sterling.
“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
“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
I nodded. “Good-bye, Orloff.”
I hesitated a moment. “Good luck.”
“Thank you.” He nodded
“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.