John Hershe, born June 15, 1924, Newcastle, Australia. Immigrant parents of Russia, Latvia; deceased. Sister, Joanne Bonne, suspected to have defected, residing in Bangkok, last seen New Year’s Eve, 1983.
John Hershe: resides alone, white house facing a cul-de-sac, purchased 1994 upon retirement from front employment: Bus Driver, Newcastle Transit.
He has one coffee at home between 7.05, 7.15.
It is Morning of Tuesday, March 27, 2001. Hershe has a coffee at 7.16. Williams, Secret Agent, notes this, looking at his watch from the house across the cul-de-sac. He marks this in the ledger, it is unique.
The ledger is almost full. Williams will mail it, like the others. He will mail it to the Canberra branch of HIF health insurance, it will be returned 6-7 business days later and he will burn it. He suspects they photocopy or scan them, even. He has heard of that technology now. This has how it has operated, since The Department went underground.
On Tuesdays Hershe shops for groceries and meat. He watches morning TV until 11am and shops at the Fair until lunch, which he takes without associates at the Lilydrop Cafe and Bakery. He often has brief communication with a woman, Beryl White, 85, former school teacher. White has been investigated and is not considered suspicious.
Over 3,750 coffees on mornings that began like this, Williams in his window, Hershe in his kitchen, the two men facing each across the cul-de-sac, and Hershe never knowing. They are similar, on paper. Both divorced, apparently-retired, quiet men. Williams thinks about that, sometimes.
This morning, Hershe is dressed already as he takes his coffee. This is also unique. Williams suspects Hershe might finally have a meeting with his superiors, and begins to arrange his bag with calm haste. He has to catch his breath a minute, leaning on the windowsill. He mustn’t push himself too much, he’s not what he used to be, he hates to admit.
When Hershe starts his car, Williams is already in his at the intersection of Burrell Rd and Amy St. He has not seen Hershe carry a box to the boot of his car.
Williams is following in his dated Toyota Crown behind Hershe’s Volvo at a three car distance. If contact from the Soviets has been made with Hershe, Williams has missed it. There were no irregularities in his behaviour or mail. Williams is stone-faced, but is tortured. There had to have been irregularities. Hershe hasn’t been woken up into service after this long without communication.
How long has it been, Williams wonders. He’ll work it out later. Focus.
Hershe is turning East on Main St, heading towards the city.
A teen driver passes them both in the wrong lane, holding his horn down the whole way. ‘Old fuckers!’ he mouths at Williams. Hershe and Williams both brake and pull to the left in their old cars. Hershe polishes his every Sunday, 11am. Williams does the same in the backyard, so that Hershe cannot see him.
It has been 12 years and 42 days since Williams was assigned to Hershe. Tuesday, February 13, 1990. Hershe was fitter, then. Williams would work out to keep up with him, preparing should they ever meet hand-to-hand.
It has been 14 years and 59 days since Hershe’s last-known communication with the Soviets. A fax was sent by Hershe to a man in Moscow known to be associated with a high-ranking official in the Red Army. Hershe was placed under Williams’ watch.
Williams had only 19 days access to The Department’s data on Hershe before they disappeared. He had never learned what was contained in the fax, but had speculations.
The Department closed the doors, The Director was arrested and tried on theft of Government Data and murdering a suspected Soviet sympathiser. The Wall had fallen. They had killed the right guy; Bobby Devlin, but on the wrong day. The Department went underground.
No contact had been made with Williams since, although he understands that he is on assignment as though nothing has changed. No one told him to stop working, so he hasn’t. That is his training. He understands The Department has to be in hiding, that they may come back above ground, or they may not. He expects no recognition, or even acknowledgement.
November 10, 1991, exactly two years after The Wall had fallen, he had been called by the HIF Canberra office and asked to mail his credentials there to receive health insurance. He knew what that meant and he has mailed his findings there since.
Hershe parks kerb to gutter on Beach St, adjacent to the Newcastle Leagues Club. He has been a member there from December, 1985; badge no. #1034. He won the meat raffle last week.
Williams continues down the street around the roundabout, returns and parks on the opposite side of the street. He takes a pad from his blazer pocket to record the time and the address. He has already written the date there, he realises. He flips back some pages.
Wednesday, February 14, 2001 phone call on balcony, 43 minutes. Happy.
Thursday, February 15, 2001 laundry. Kicked soccer ball back over fence.
Sunday, February 18, 2001 drove to store, some conversations, Shook a man’s hand.
He skips back to today’s page and writes ‘Leagues Club’.
Hershe walks inside the club, but does not show his member’s badge. He speaks to the secretary at the front office; Deborah Canning, of no significance. Williams had a coffee meeting with her in 1998, at her request. She had no information and was not interesting. She spoke about gardening and movies, and tried to kiss him as they left the cafe.
Williams crosses the street and moves into the phone booth at the corner of the club, fifteen steps from the door.
Canning uses the club microphone. Williams understands that a name has been called. It can be heard faintly, coming from the outdoor area near Williams, but he cannot make out the name. Hershe goes back to his car and opens his boot. He waits there.
Williams cannot see past the boot. Hershe is hidden from him. He curses, his neck sweats. He can’t move, he is too close. He can cross the road, but he will bring attention to himself. He is holding the phone to his face, mouthing words.
‘Blast, Hershe, you smart bastard. Are you on to me? You better not be Hershe, you smart bastard.’
A man exits the Leagues Club. He has on no decorations, but may be military. He is wearing khaki pants, thongs, blue golf polo and is rubbing his hands together.
He meets Hershe behind the boot. Williams can’t stand it now. He gets ready to make a move but his legs are frozen. He hasn’t been this close to Hershe in years, and Hershe is making contact, breaking the routine. He can’t miss this, but he can’t break cover. At this distance Hershe is older and more frail than he had realised.
‘Bye, Mum,’ he says. He places the phone down, softly and is across the street in fourteen steps, watching Hershe and Associate in the reflection of the Browning’s Family Travel Agent shop window.
He gets in his car, opens a street directory on the dash and flicks a page slowly as he watches Hershe and Associate at the open boot of Hershe’s vehicle. His heart is racing. This is it. He knows this is it. They’ll call him back in from the cold. They’ll tell him what it’s all been for. They’ll herald him.
Hershe is talking with his hands, pointing to something in the boot. He is smiling and leaning on the corner of the car. He taps the man on the shoulder, shakes his hand. The man pays him cash. Hershe counts it and Williams follows with him under his breath: ‘one, two, hundred, fifty. Two hundred and fifty dollars,’ Hershe and Williams both say like they are speaking to each other.
The man reaches into the boot and takes out the box. The man walks back into the Leagues Club. Hershe closes the boot, starts his car through the window. He calls back to the man through the closing doors of the Leagues Club. He waves like he has forgotten something, and then walks hurriedly back to the boot and opens it again. He is small, like a bird, with long thin arms. He lost weight when he retired. He meets the man again at the front of the car and hands him a vinyl record.
‘I almost forgot,’ Williams hears Hershe say and the other man laughs. ‘A bonus!’ he says.
Williams can make out the record; it is Kiss Dynasty, 1979. He had owned the same record before his wife moved to Adelaide, before he joined The Department.
The box was a decoy, he is sure. The communication is in the record. He must intercept it.
Hershe gets back in his car. He is smiling, Williams can see in the rear vision mirror. He counts the money again and folds it into his wallet. He is wearing knee high white socks, black polo tucked into grey shorts. He wears polarised sunglasses over his driving glasses.
He reverses out of the parking space with a jolt, heavy on the gas and is hit on the rear passenger side by a bus. His car rotates 40 degrees, the front passenger side is driven into the rear of the next parked car. Hershe’s body twists and slams into the steering wheel with the first hit, and into the door with the second collision.
Williams is standing in the hospital hall, trying not to pace. A nurse is coming down the hall and he turns into the wall, rubbing the side of his face to shield himself. He has never been so obvious before. It could all come undone now, years of work, but he has to be here. He feels it like he hasn’t ever felt his duty before – like it means something.
‘You must be a friend. You can’t see him, not now,’ says the nurse. He doesn’t turn to her, just shakes his head and she stops behind him.
‘No one else has come, you know. It’s sad with the elderly,’ she says. He turns and she looks at him properly and regrets it.
‘I guess you can see him quick. He’s out, anyway. No one else came,’ she says again.
‘He’s out?’’ Williams says finally.
‘Induced coma,’ the nurse says over her shoulder as she’s walking away.
Williams stands over him holding his patient card to his chest with his gloved hands. He notices the wrinkles on Hershe where his ear joins his face. Williams rubs his own. He remembers when he first found them, when he first felt old. Hershe’s hair is trimmed short, they have the same barber. Williams has learnt many things about Hershe there. His daughter had died at birth, he never had another. He used to play representative rugby for Newcastle, had been to Fiji once. A man learns a lot by listening.
Hershe is breathing softly, his eyes are closed, his face is vacant. He had a retirement party at the Golden Barley Hotel in 1994, Williams had been there across the bar, watching. It was the last time he had been in the same room as Hershe. Now he is smaller, whiter.
Williams stands like that, watching, for hours. The nurse leaves him. She knows grief, and this is something different and she doesn’t want to know it.
Williams looks at every part of the man’s face, filling in the gaps in his mind about Hershe: the finer details of his face, the saggy skin on his arms, the faded tattoo he could never make out. It’s a Scottish family crest.
Finally, Hershe dies. He breathes from his small chest one last time and then he is gone. Williams feels empty. He stands watching him an hour longer while the nurses hover around the body, pulling wires and things. No one appears to notice him. He feels hollow like he is a rotting tree trunk and even the wind passes through him.
It is morning when he leaves. He stares at a coffee at the Lilydrop Cafe, he hasn’t eaten since he left following Hershe the day before. He isn’t hungry, and doesn’t touch the coffee. He wants to be near people. He doesn’t want to be alone, he wants to be near Hershe, he realises. He hasn’t felt like this in a long time. He must not develop a weakness, he knows, but indulges the thoughts he is having.
He sees Beryl, the acquaintance of Hershe. She sees him looking at her and she smiles and waves. He looks down at his coffee.
Hershe looked pleasant, he remembers. He had only a small gash on his forehead, but the force was enough, the report said. Frailty, old age, they said. He had laid there with a pleasant, satisfied smile. What was the source of it, Williams wonders? He has followed him for a decade between the supermarket, the club, the cafe, sometimes a thai dinner on his own. From which of these was the satisfaction? Williams had done all of them the same, just some steps behind, in less light. Is he satisfied? He has never wondered before.
What does it mean for Williams? He is lost. Maybe his service is complete? He will report it to the HIF building, The Department. He will get a new case. Maybe they’ll retire him. What then?
Williams breaks into Hershe’s home through the back window, as he has always planned. He intends on searching his home, but he doesn’t. There will be nothing, he knows that more than he has known anything about Hershe before. He makes coffee as Hershe had done – watching the morning TV from the kitchen as the coffee drips. He has toast on the balcony and looks across the cul-de-sac to his own home. The blinds are drawn; it doesn’t seem as bright. He sleeps a while on Hershe’s bed. There’s a copy of a western novel on the pillow case, dog-eared half-way. He reads a few pages from where Hershe has left it. A horse bolts and a cowboy drags himself back to town with a broken leg.
He sleeps the whole afternoon and wakes as the sun is going down. He doesn’t feel rested, just resigned and aching. He straightens his blazer, combs his hair in Hershe’s mirror, reassembles the things that he has touched in his room. He washes his coffee cup and plate and puts them back as they were. He wipes down the coffee machine and the benches. He was careless with his prints, it doesn’t matter.
At home he packs the last box to send to The Department. He starts a new notepad, he writes the date on the first page. He knows, now.
He will find the man with the record.