When CSIS took over national security from the RCMP, it had little effect on The Institute. They continued their top-secret espionage activities unhindered by any worries about public perception. So few people outside of The Institute itself even knew of its existence that this long-standing agency went on about its business unnoticed by the public as it always had.
With such a high death rate among operatives as The Institute suffered, recruiting was an on-going and important activity. All employees were under instructions to keep an eye out for likely candidates.
Jeff was not the kind of man The Institute’s human resources specialists would normally consider. Very rarely would they recruit a married man with a child, but Jeff was irresistible to the older operative who had consulted Jeff for a digestive complaint. Suspecting Jeff might make a good future colleague, the old man (whose judgment could not be questioned, given that he had lived to BE an old man) cultivated the young physician’s acquaintance socially, all the better to gage if he would be suitable for a post as defender of the “true north strong and free”.
But for the encumbrance of a family, Jeff was perfect. His photographic memory and extraordinary intelligence had got him through medical school with barely any effort. As is the case with many people of high intelligence, he hadn’t found either his profession or any of his many hobbies to satisfy him entirely. He was imaginative and adventurous and was already in excellent physical condition. An additional asset was his boyish good looks. The higher officials of the Institute had many years ago accepted an inequity of life that attractive people are better able to worm their way into secret places and snuffle out secrets than someone with the same abilities but less stimulating to the hormones. It was unfair, but The Institute was more interested in specific political results than overall justice to mankind.
Jeff jumped at the offer when the older operative finally made it. A cover story of an overseas medical assignment was developed to satisfy his family. Jeff invited his son, a boy of seven at the time, to invent a name, on the pretext of Daddy wanting to have a secret inter-net identity. The child, a prodigy in his own right, had been perusing various economic studies made by the Canadian think-tank, the Fraser Institute, as bedtime reading. His poor mother, being only of slightly more than average intelligence announced one night that she couldn’t understand why he was so bent on reading that Fraser stuff. That night, thinking over his mother’s words, the boy devised the name “Benton Fraser”.
The hiring of Dave, on the other hand, was conventional in every respect. Already a novelist of some minor reputation, he’d been under consideration for some years by The Institute. He had no parents living and few other family and friends. The only possible problem with Dave had been that he had a small following of fans, although he was by no means a celebrity, and there was fear in the upper echelons of The Institute that he’d be too recognizable for clandestine work.
In the end the consideration was waived. Dave had always refused to let his publisher put his picture on the dust jackets of his books. Being openly gay, he was afraid of being seen, recognized and attacked in the street. Unlike Jeff, he had no steady partner and was entirely free of any familial responsibility. Best of all, he could continue to write his novels under his old name while carrying on the work of The Institute under alternate names, so the cause of Canadian literature need not be adversely affected.
Had the pictures been published, they would have shown a lean, serious, young man, of square but regular, pleasant features. Dave’s ability to play-act and change his expression at will from his usual pensive aspect to that of a simpleton would prove useful to him in his assignments. He invented names and personae for himself with the same ease as he invented characters for his novels. “Renfield Turnbull”, before Dave diverted the name for his cover, was going to be the romantic lead of a historical romance.
Employment in The Institute benefited Dave in his personal life. It gave him the opportunity to meet, fall in love with and become partner to a certain Neil in the Institute’s Finance Department. Visually, they were a perfect couple, tall and fair both, and the women of The Institute could only content themselves with the thought that the best looking men just seemed to be interested in each other, and not in the opposite sex.
As for Jeff, although he was a “field man” and extraordinarily handsome to boot, he kept his sexual activities to a minimum and dallied only in the line of duty. When a mischance led his wife to discover his real job, she was alarmed first for his physical safety and then for the sanctity of his marriage vows. Television and movies had taught her that spies were sex fiends. Jeff, on an infrequent visit home, assured her this was not the case and he was not lying. Operatives of The Institute who allowed their effectiveness to be clouded by sex seldom had to be fired. That weakness itself rendered them self-terminating.
It was an inside joke amongst members of The Institute to disguise key operatives as Mounties, the better to poke fun at the RCMP who had supposedly been responsible for national security all these years while The Institute did the really hard work.
Thus were born, unbeknownst to each other when they first came into existence, Constable Benton Fraser and Constable Renfield Turnbull, who would work together under Inspector Margaret Thatcher in Chicago. Inspector Thatcher was a bona-fide RCMP officer and like 99.99 percent of the population of Canada (and by extension an absurdly infinitesimal percentage of the population of the world) would live out her days never knowing of the existence of The Institute, let alone that her life had been saved by two of its most talented employees.
“A Mountie in Milwaukee” hit the bookstores the autumn after Fraser/Jeff discovered Turnbull/Dave’s real identity. Turnbull/Dave knew all about his colleague before coming to Chicago and had a side bet with another operative that Fraser/Jeff would catch onto him within a month. But Turnbull/Dave’s cover was flawless and it was only by accident that Fraser/Jeff caught him in the Consulate sipping brandy and working on his novel late one night.
One afternoon shortly afterwards Turnbull/Dave appeared in Fraser/Jeff’s office with a copy of “A Mountie in Milwaukee” under his arm.
“I thought you might be interested in this, sir,” he said blandly.
Fraser/Jeff looked up from his paperwork. Turnbull/Dave had indeed promised to give him a copy after confessing that the new novel was based Fraser/Jeff himself – or rather about his cover story of how a Mountie first came to Chicago on the trail of his father’s killer.
“Thank you kindly, Turnbull,” Fraser/Jeff responded, with equal blandness.
Turnbull/Dave handed the book over. “It wasn’t in the bookstores here in the States. I had to order it.”
Fraser/Jeff opened the cover and had a look at the inside flyleaf. “It’s not autographed,” he said with a wicked little smile.
Turnbull/Dave returned his smile as the two of them enjoyed their private joke. Both knew Turnbull/Dave would not be so careless as to autograph the book.
“Milwaukee, eh?” Fraser/Jeff went on, “You know, I heard a rumour that his new book was going to be about a Mountie in Chicago. I wonder why he changed it?”
Turnbull/Dave kept his expression deadpan as ever. “Maybe his publisher thought the title should be alliterative.”
A month or so later, one morning late in November, Inspector Thatcher failed to show up at the Consulate. She hadn’t warned either of her subordinates that she would be absent. The two checked her electronic agenda and found no outside appointments. In fact, she had two meetings with trade representatives scheduled for that afternoon and Turnbull/Dave was already under instructions to provide refreshments. “The Mounties” found this worrisome, particularly Turnbull/Dave who had been looking forward to some culinary exercise and was put out to have lost the excuse to try out a new puff pastry recipe.
“This is most unlike the Inspector, sir. Do you suppose she is ill?”
Fraser/Jeff dismissed the idea. “If she were conscious, she’d call. If she were unconscious or dead the Consulate would be notified. She carries our emergency number in her wallet.” Turnbull/Dave cringed in embarrassment at this piece of information, and mentally kicked himself for neglecting to inform himself earlier of the contents of the Inspector’s wallet. Well, it wasn’t for nothing that Fraser/Jeff had the reputation of being The Institute’s top field man.
“This does not bode well,” was Fraser/Jeff’s obvious conclusion.
The two men decided not to take any action for the rest of the morning, just in case there should prove a logical, harmless explanation. They weren’t very hopeful, but the wisest course seemed to be to wait. They spent the morning rescheduling Thatcher’s appointments, just in case.
That afternoon Fraser/Jeff, while opening the mail, came upon a letter that bore no stamp and was addressed only “Mounties”. Without changing his facial expression at all, he took the letter and walked over to Turnbull/Dave’s office. “I’m in the mood for a cup of tea,” he said. “Let’s put a kettle on.”
Most of the rooms in the Consulate were bugged and camera’d, but Fraser/Jeff had only disabled the surveillance in the kitchen and the bathrooms. Having studied the equipment being used, he had concluded that the owners of the equipment would think that water and fumes were at fault, since all the other microphones and cameras were working. From time to time, Fraser/Jeff made sure the kitchen and bathrooms were still secure.
It was only when they were safely inside the kitchen that Fraser/Jeff held up the envelope. It was sealed. They steamed it open, taking, in addition, the opportunity to make a pot of tea for themselves and leaving it to steep.
Fraser/Jeff, being nominally the senior of the two from the point of view of administrative duties rather than actual rank, read the enclosed paper first. “Oh dear,” he said, with a sigh, and handed the missive to Turnbull/Dave.
The letter was a ransom note demanding ten million dollars for the return of the Inspector. It was unsigned, of course, but a contact time and place in downtown Chicago was specified for the transfer of the money some three days hence. There were the usual admonitions not to involve the police, not allow themselves to be followed, yada yada yada.
“Amateurish,” remarked Turnbull/Dave.
Fraser/Jeff leaned his elbows onto the kitchen table at which they were sitting and steepled his fingertips. He tapped them together, pensively. Then he took the letter back and studied it, front and back. “Hmm. I wonder if it’s too amateurish.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“Well, the way I see it, we have three choices: call Ottawa, call the Americans, or handle this ourselves.” said Fraser/Jeff.
“They’re all three unwise,” Turnbull/Dave pointed out. “What’s the best of three evils?”
Fraser/Jeff suddenly looked mischievous. “How about the one that’s the most fun?”
Turnbull/Dave was skeptical. “I’m the one that’s supposed to be the romantic. You can’t be thinking we should rescue the damsel in distress? Far too risky.”
Boyish eyebrows rose over Fraser/Jeff’s striking blue/grey eyes. “Come on, Dave, when’s the last time you really enjoyed yourself?”
The use of his real name startled Turnbull/Dave but it indicated that his colleague was serious about this, as well as being confident that they were not being spied upon.
“When I got my last royalty cheque and banked it. I’m a cautious man, Jeff. And I’m hormonally unmoved by Inspector’s charms. Let’s turn it all over to Ottawa, let them botch it as usual and see what kind of a new boss we get. Anything’s better than the Dragon Lady.”
“I thought you were the romantic?”
“Only when I’m getting paid to write about it.” With this cynical remark, Turnbull poured them both cups of tea. They sat drinking and reflecting in silence for a few minutes.
“There’s the problem of who’s going to look after the Consulate while we’re in Europe. The Dragon Lady will have our hides if we both leave the place at the same time,” said Turnbull/Dave, finally.
“If we succeed in rescuing her, she’ll forgive us. If we don’t, she won’t be in a position to punish us. Dead women don’t write reports.”
“Leave it to her, she’ll find a way. Oh well, we only live once. But Neil will be shattered if I die in the gallant rescue of a WOMAN.”
“I won’t let you die. Am I not the best field man in The Institute? We’ll let Julia watch the Consulate for a few days,” said Fraser/Jeff, making reference to a consular clerk who was seldom seen but extremely efficient, “What are the chances of another emergency coming up so soon? I say we risk it.”
“All right. I ought to have my head examined, but all right.”
“Good, then it’s decided. You said ‘Europe’?” asked Fraser/Jeff, referring back to an earlier comment.
Turnbull/Dave picked up the letter again and brought it close to his face, frowning in concentration. “From the paper, the ink and the handwriting, I’m thinking Austria.”
“Nice,” said Fraser/Jeff in admiration. “But I wanted to be Holmes and I wanted you to be Watson.”
“You’re a physician. You have to be Doctor Watson,” Turnbull/Dave pointed out.
Fraser/Jeff wasn’t satisfied. “Tell you what. The one with the most doctorates has to be Watson. How many do you have?”
“Uh, six if you count the honouraries.”
“Ha! I win. I’ve only got the one medical degree!” Fraser/Jeff declared in triumph.
“Okay, Holmes, prove yourself. Deduce where in Austria she’s being held.”
“You’re convinced she’s not being held here in Chicago, then?” Fraser/Jeff insisted.
“You forget I’m the European specialist. I can smell Sachertorte all over this. Come on, hotshot, show me what you’re made of. Where in Austria?”
Fraser/Jeff made a careful study of the evidence. “Baden?” he sought out confirmation of his guess.
“Baden,” confirmed Turnbull/Dave.
One of the perks of being a field man was that your expense account was seldom questioned. There was an element of practicality in this largesse. It happened quite often that the operatives were untraceable while on assignment, missing in action or simply killed while their paperwork was being completed. Detailed discussion of their expense claims was, for these reasons, often impractical. An additional factor was that the security clearance of the operatives was usually far higher than those of the bean counters, so a simple “you’re not cleared to know that” could be used by any agent to avoid embarrassing inquiries.
This meant that Jeff/Fraser had no hesitation in calling and booking the two of them onto the next flight to Vienna. The tourist town of Baden was a short drive south. While waiting in the airport for their flight, the two had an important procedural issue to decide.
“So, how are we going to play this, Dave? Are we Canadian tourists who don’t speak German? Austrians? If so from which region?”
Dave/Turnbull gave this some thought. “If we want to question the locals directly we’re better off speaking German. If we want them to think we don’t understand and talk in front of us, that’s another story.”
“The best would be to understand them, but be so stupid that they would still speak freely in our presence. We’d want them to think we’re too dense to understand. Would that be do-able?”
Dave/Turnbull’s face lit up. “Yes, if you can do the accent of a Burgenlander. They’re the Newfies or Pollacks of Austria, always the butt of jokes about how stupid they are. Recite me something in a Burgenland accent. We’ll see if you can pull it off.”
Jeff/Fraser pouted. “I can do any accent you can do,” and picked up a discarded newspaper that lay nearby. He rattled off a headline and the first paragraph of the accompanying story translated into German with just the right accent.
“Show off,” muttered Dave/Turnbull.
They rented a car at the Vienna airport and within twenty minutes they were in Baden. In the late autumn the beaches were closed but the thermal baths, theatres, casinos and other tourist trappings were operational. The town was surrounded by wooded hills, just high enough to be scenic and dressed in full autumn array.
A half-day of circuitous inquiry led our heroes to conclude that Thatcher must be held in the west end of the area, just outside the town proper.
“If you’re after romance and adventure, this couldn’t be better,” Dave/Turnbull assured Jeff/Fraser. “There are two castle ruins on the hilltops – one on either side of the highway. Actually only one is a real ruin. The local lord who liked to have ruins on his property built the other in the nineteenth century. There’s also a mock-Roman ruin a few kilometers away.”
Jeff/Fraser’s snickered at this additional information. “Don’t you just hate mock-ruins?” he quipped. “Let’s find a hotel, shall we? I could do with a schnitzel and a night’s sleep.”
They spent the next morning in more detective work, the results of which pleased Dave/Turnbull no end. He concluded that Thatcher was being held in no less exotic a place than the castle ruin on the north side of the highway, the one that was for real.
Jeff/Fraser had his doubts. “You can see the ruin from the highway. It’s open to the public and there are hiking paths going right to it. How are they going to hold a captive there unnoticed?”
“We’ll find out when we get there,” Dave/Turnbull announced with such confidence that his fellow traveler withheld any further expression of doubt.
The hotel they had chosen was only a short walk from an entrance to the maze of hillside paths that crisscrossed the area. A light drizzle dampened their clothes as well as their appreciation of the charm of the Vienna woods as they tramped along the well-maintained walkways. But the weather worked in their favour, keeping away other hikers. The path first led up the side of one hill and at the top they paused at a clearing where there was a bench set up for hikers to admire the view.
The grey skies muted the yellows, oranges, reds and greens that spread before them but couldn’t entirely spoil the beauty of the scenery. “This really is something!” was Jeff/Fraser’s prosaic yet enthusiastic exclamation.
Dave/Turnbull could only agree and was already making mental notes how to describe the scene in an upcoming novel. “And the funny thing about it is, if you look over that way where there are no buildings, we could be anywhere with a temperate climate and deciduous trees. It’s the same view as we might get back home.”
Jeff/Fraser agreed. “I’ve seen these identical hills in the Gatineau, the Adirondacks, the Laurentians, can’t even remember how many other places. And yet if you move your head a couple of degrees you see the castle ruins and you know you’re not home.”
“There’s got to be something philosophical about that,” Dave/Turnbull decided.
“Figure it out and put it in your next book. We should be on our way.”
They could see the grey/white stone of the castle ruin about a kilometer from where they stood. Large sections of the surrounding wall were still standing and the remains of towers jutted up from them. The dominant feature was a square building, wholly intact, about five stories high.
A wet walk brought them to a stone arch that had once been the entrance into the fortifications. Now there were bushes and high grass between the arch and the remains of the wall. As they went inside Jeff turned to head directly to the building but Dave insisted on exploring the roofless rooms and passages first. Jeff suspected his companion only wanted the fun of prowling about the ruins, an impression which was confirmed by Dave’s darting like a frolicking schoolboy into each and every half-collapsed chamber and scampering up the ramparts. Yet Jeff was in no position to complain. He himself had argued that the purpose of the trip was to have fun.
Only after ruling out all other locations in this manner did they make their way to the square tower to find a wooden door set into the stones. A sign in German told them the area was closed to the public and a casual jiggle of the old metal handle confirmed that the door was locked.
Jeff extracted a thin metal wire seven centimeters long from his shirt collar, poked briefly at the lock and then opened the door. Inspector Thatcher was hunched in the corner of the gloomy enclosure, bound and gagged. She didn’t move at all when the door opened and her own two staff members slipped in.
“Hot dog, she’s unconscious!” Jeff exclaimed. “We may pull this off without her even knowing who we are!”
The rescuers hastily closed the door behind them and ran to kneel beside where she half sat/half lay against a rough stone wall. Jeff made a hurried examination of the senseless woman to make sure she was alive and not in a condition to be harmed by the sedative he had ready in his inside breast pocket. “I’d just like to make sure she stays unconscious,” he explained to Dave. The inconvenience of carrying her bodily back to hotel, it seemed to Jeff, would be preferable to facing her reaction if she saw and recognized them.
But it wasn’t going to be that easy. As Jeff was administering the injection, the door opened to reveal a thug. Even in the semi-darkness of the tower Dave and Jeff could see his expression was none too pleased.
Both the “Mounties” took in the area around them to see what their options were. A flight of wooden stairs led up the tower. The only door to the outside at their level had a thug standing in it. They concluded, separately and simultaneously, that they had a variety of choices: grab the woman and rush the thug, leave the woman and rush the thug, grab the woman and climb the stairs, or leave the woman and climb the stairs. Or, each of them could perform either action separately. Mathematically there were, therefore a number of possibilities.
Jeff decided the issue for them by stooping to sweep up the Inspector to his shoulders, shouting, “Up!” and heading for the stairs. Fortunately he and Dave were both in better physical condition than the thug, and even hindered by the weight of his boss Jeff was up the five flights of worm-eaten wooden stairs in a trice, with Dave hot on his heels. (We don’t question the tactics of the best field man in The Institute so it doesn’t behoove us to ask why he chose this course of action, i.e. grabbing the woman and both of them climbing the stairs, from among the various aforesaid possibilities.)
The top of the staircase led to an open platform. The view from up there would have be splendid had any of the participants been interested in scenery at the moment but the thug, as he emerged finally from the tower stairs, was only interested in catching Dave and Jeff. Dave and Jeff were only interested in preventing that from happening and Inspector Thatcher, being unconscious, was singularly uninterested in anything at the moment.
The wind was strong at that height and Jeff’s shout of “Take her!” would not have registered on Dave if Jeff had not shoved the limp body of the Inspector at him at the same time. Dave settled her over one shoulder. Meanwhile Jeff grappled with the thug. After only a brief tussle the younger, fitter (and parenthetically better looking) man hurled his adversary over the edge of the tower. The fall of five stories damaged the thug enough to prevent him from following them, but in the privacy of his own mind Dave resolved to make the tower much higher and the fight more spectacular when he adapted this scene for his upcoming novel.
The sight of the two wet and dirty Burgenlanders, one of them carrying a wet and dirty unconscious woman, attracted some disapproving looks in the hotel lobby. Dave and Jeff both noticed that the clerk behind the counter just happened to be dialing the telephone while staring pointedly at them. No doubt she was reporting these suspicious Burgenlanders to some authority. Possibly the police. It would be wise for them to wind this up in short order.
In the safety of their room (they had shared a room for convenience, with there being no risk of complications since Jeff was straight and Dave was faithful to his partner, Neil) they lay Thatcher on the bed. Jeff gave her another quick examination and found her condition sound.
She had no purse, of course, but the men had come prepared to ensure that she would get back to Chicago on her own. Dave put the return coupon of a round-trip plane ticket Chicago-Vienna-Chicago along with a couple of her business cards for identification onto the bedside table. When the police arrived, or when she awoke, whichever came first, she would have the difficulty of having no passport, but the authorities would of course contact the Consulate for verification of her identity.
By the time all had been reported, investigated and cleared, Jeff and Dave should have plenty of time to get home and back to duty. The Inspector need never know who her rescuers had been.
They could avoid appearing at the counter in the lobby to check out because Jeff’s credit card imprint had already been taken. Thatcher wouldn’t even have to pay for the room. Jeff and Dave both had special credit cards and fake passports to avoid their identities being traced, so they left satisfied that all was under control.
The abduction and mysterious rescue of an RCMP officer made the news all over Canada, all over Austria and in Chicago. Julia, the efficient and seldom-seen consular clerk, was watching a news bulletin on this very affair when Fraser returned to the Consulate. Turnbull had gone back to his cardboard box for the night and would report for duty at the usual time the next day. But since Fraser lived at the Consulate it made sense for him to come directly there.
After the requisite greetings Julia made Fraser sit down to watch the coverage of this amazing episode involving their own commanding officer. Fraser easily affected the appropriate astonishment and settled onto a couch beside her to watch the rest of the news.
Julia had mixed feelings as she sat there watching television with the handsome operative. For all that Jeff was the best field man in The Institute, she was still under obligation to report that both he and Dave had been careless with their covers. But she could arrange that they’d get off with only a warning.