August 19th, 2009
Kemal Altikardesh set down the dregs of his syrupy coffee and smiled.
‘Your hospitality, Hugh, is only exceeded by the charms of your – what do you call Mme Nicolette – your distant early warning? You’ve even turned on the weather – I feel right at home.’
‘Glad it meets with your approval, Kemal,’ perspired the Section 32 co-coordinator. He loosened his tie, wiped a handtowel over his balding pate and wondered when this bloody heatwave was going to end.
‘Have you considered airconditioning, my friend?’
‘Well, we do actually have conditioning of sorts, believe it or not, somewhere in this rabbit warren. The temperature itself is only 28 or 29 but the way the buildings are laid out, the narrow streets – after a few days, it becomes asphyxiating.’
His Turkish counterpart smiled to himself. ‘Beautiful location though, Hugh – north of a northern city, parks nearby, cobblestone lanes – very old world.’
‘It’s pleasant enough to work in – on a cool day.’
They got down to the business of the standard issue sidearms contract.
In reception, Nikki had finished munching on her green apple, she aimed the core at the wastepaper basket, wiped her palms and face on a teatowel and asked the Level 4, Ryan, if he’d like another glass of water whilst he was waiting. Outside, the city was gasping for breath, the sun beat down on rooftops and concrete footpaths, searing east-facing rooms.
The meeting with Altikardesh now concluded, Hugh ushered him through to the outer office to be left, as usual, to Nikki’s tender ministrations – guests always enjoyed this part of it. Fielding the standard marriage proposal with her usual repartee, she bundled him away and returned to say that Ryan was waiting to be seen.
‘All right, let’s deal with this now.’
Once this side of the carved double doors, Ryan propped, uneasy, his slight, ever alert form and blinking eyes incongruous in the sombre stateroom – oak panelling had always intimidated him. Some metres away, the security head’s form, forever poised between being in shape and going to seed, was seated side-on to a desk awash with paperwork.
He was contemplating the top document of a thick file, worry creasing an already deeply creased brow. Glancing at his watch, he set down the file and gazed across at their top operative – there were less than four hours in which to come up with an answer about this Sentinel business.
‘Come in, Ryan, sit down.’ He indicated the leather couch and chairs to one side of the room, under the portrait of the nation’s greatest naval hero.
Hugh watched as the man crossed the ersatz Bokhara and perched on the edge of the couch, feeling the cool dark leather below him yield, as if inviting him to relax his guard. He planted his feet all the more firmly, half a metre apart on the rug and resisted the invitation to further drop his defences.
Nikki came through and cleared the coffee tray away, Hugh came over and sat down, ran a handkerchief over his balding pate and loosened the tie yet further. ‘Tell me, Ryan, are you aware we lost another Sentinel today?’
Ryan blinked. ‘Yes, Mr. Jensen, sir.’
‘Any ideas about whom it may have been?’
‘I know who it was – it was Miss Waverley.’
Hugh was patient. ‘I didn’t mean the victim, Ryan, I meant the perpetrator.’
‘No idea, sir.’
‘Aren’t the Sentinels your immediate responsibility?’
‘Ye – es, although Mrs. Carrington is in overall control.’
‘But you’re in control on the ground.’
‘Yes, sir, as you know.’
Hugh sighed and wiped his brow again with the hand towel. He walked across to the desk, stabbed at the button and asked for another tea and aspirin. Ryan’s tastes didn’t run to tea, so he wasn’t asked. ‘You were close to Miss Waverley, Ryan?’
‘Vanessa was a fine young lady, sir, patient, intelligent and a good chess player.’
There was a buzz from Ryan’s pocket. ‘May I go?’
‘A call, sir, I’m needed.’
Hugh stared for a moment at his most expensive operative, rose and swept his arm towards the door. ‘Thanks for coming.’
Ryan passed through the double doors with the economy of movement which had been trained into him. He fully appreciated that, in those few minutes just now, his entire persona had been scrutinized and he hoped he’d been able to at least partially resist the penetration, not that he had anything to hide, of course.
Nikki, the shawl she’d worn for the Turkish visitor now discarded, shook her jagged mop of hair she’d retained since the day of the Bourne Identity sensual haircut and came through with the tea but no aspirin, laid it on the low table, then paused, reading his expression from experience.
‘Are we tracking him, Moineau?’
‘Tell me – is anything actually … er … operational just now?’
‘Regular surveillance units.’
‘We need to use the telescans on someone like Ryan. He’ll spot a regular shadow straight away, even one of Doug’s.’
‘So we don’t actually have the capacity, in any practical sense, to track our erstwhile colleague, do I read it correctly?’
‘You read it correctly. This is exactly what we were warned about, it kills me as much as it does you to lose Vanessa this way, although they all knew what they were getting themselves into.’
‘Yes but not just walking into proscribed addresses like that. What’s it about?’
‘Someone has got to them, implanted them.’
‘You sure who it is?’
‘Yes, wall’s have ears here. I’ve called all of them in and put in the Level 4s for now – they’ve been scanned.’
‘You’re a marvel – I don’t mind the rest of the charade, Nikki, but not this.’
‘I agree – it’s provocation of us, taunting us to take our suspect in, well before we know.’
‘In Moran’s. He went over for a chilli.’
‘What’s wrong with the canteen?’
She fixed him with a long look which spoke volumes.
‘I see. All right, I’ll speak with the caterers first thing tomorrow.’
‘The whole outfit seriously needs replacing.’ She didn’t move.
‘What, darling, what?’ a trifle exasperated.
‘Two things. Will you or I tell the PM he has just the Praetorian for now, apart from the Level 4s?’
‘I’ll call Janine. And the second?’
‘How much pull do we have with the PM?’
‘You know that – we did have much after Celeste but this business will tarnish us.’
‘You know Bridgewater, where it crosses the river?’
‘The shopping town?’
‘No, across the river from there.’
‘You mean that goddawful swamp?’
‘That goddawful swamp is home to seven species of fish and there’s a colony of otters as well. There’s a pathway through the trees and in autumn, there’s a carpet of leaves covering it.’
‘I – I haven’t seen it recently.’
‘No, you haven’t. They’re building over it – multi-level shopping complex and carpark.’
‘Yes, I know – progress love, 1500 jobs, reclamation project I believe.’
‘Progress for whom?’
‘Exactly. Could you have a word with the PM?’
‘But he has nothing to do with these things directly, nor do we. It’s a council matter, besides, the permits have been signed and the building’s commenced.’
‘And the otters are still alive.’
‘All right, all right, I’ll speak with him, I promise and soon too … but not today, not with this going on. We have to think out an answer, we need a conference at home with all of us – we didn’t do that after the first.’
‘I’ve been over and over it myself. Rosa’s clean on paper, Jackson is possible – there are anomalies in his lifestyle but I haven’t been able to connect them yet.’
‘We need that conference.’
Graft? Not likely – they were superbly-paid. Ryan was a robotic workaholic and besides, he didn’t drive. Power? Ryan already had power by his own lights, he was never going to be Head of the Citadel anyway – there were too many obstacles, not the least being his temperament.
Ryan though had grossly failed all five girls at those critical times when they’d gone offline. Was someone playing Ryan?
He turned and rang Janine.
Jackson sighed. The Meteor had surrounded himself with class – just downright nice people really, ordinary people in a way – believable people, and then he’d selected Jackson himself, stalked him more like and had sprung the question. How could Jackson not have felt flattered, how could he not have agreed to the oh-so-reasonable request to throw in his lot with this team?
He liked to think of himself as a loyal part of the team, Jackson, and anyone in his right mind didn’t mess with the team, people spoke with respect of the team. And yet the little bit extra he’d agreed to, well it had come in handy and he didn’t consider he’d compromised his position or the Section – not at all.
He was musing over this as he waited behind the wheel of the E500 in the relative coolness of the underground car park, waiting for the call to action. That’s when he saw Ryan poke his head around the lower door.
But Ryan didn’t drive.
Jackson dropped back in the seat and pressed recline. Ryan ventured into the park and went across to the BMW, Nikki’s old Z8 she loved. He stood there, swivelling his head, then bent down out of sight, straightened up and strode swiftly for the door whence he’d come. Jackson snapped open the mobile, scrambled an encoded message to Nikki and awaited the reply.
It came swiftly. He was to go upstairs casually and make his way back to the Citadel, noting everything along the way. The Mercedes was to remain unlocked.
He made it through the carpark door, according to the security cameras later, but his body was fished out of the canal at 8 o’clock that evening, death had been instantaneous – total brain shutdown. No blow, no poison, no drugs.
Deep in the bowels of the sprawling heap of buildings which housed the Treasury, a phone rang.
‘Jamieson – uh-huh, one moment.’
The thin female voice on the wire could be heard by Jamieson’s secretary, he looked at the latter pointedly, she gathered up some papers from her desk and went off to attend to other Treasury business.
‘I’m listening,’ breathed the light grey Italian suit and pink tie. ‘Uh-huh. Rattled, you say? Uh-huh. Question of time.’
He rang off and a smile played on his lips. The bloody maverick didn’t have the least clue what was going on. But actually, nor did he, Jamieson. He’d suspected a subterfuge because he hadn’t sent anyone but clearly someone with a grudge had clearly brought in each of them in turn right under the noses of the Terrible Two.
He’d checked with Europe, he’d checked with the various levels he had in place, no one was saying anything. He only had to bide his time he was assured.
Paul Waley had taken the call from Jackson in the carpark the day before and was reflecting on it now in Moran’s, sipping on a cold Black Label and mopping his forehead under the ceiling fan.
When would the damned heatwave end, he wanted to know.
The Meteor implicitly trusted his advice and that was good enough for Paul. He could ask for a raise anytime he liked but they always did the budget together and he knew exactly what everyone was getting anyway, even the Meteor himself. It was more than generous and the bonuses made it even better. Yeah, it was a tight team.
So what was going down here? Was he getting soft, had they hacked him, the Hacker, and given him a demonstration of his own impotence? Was he on the way out of the Citadel? Who were ‘they’ anyway?
He ran bony fingers through his touselled red hair and pondered this, while ordering his next beer. And that was another good thing about the Meteor – he let his staff unwind and trusted that they’d limit their intake, as they invariably did. Ryan glided through the door of Moran’s and the slight frame was at Paul’s table in a flash. Unsettling, that.
‘May I sit down, Mr. Waley?’
‘Depends what you want, of course.’ Ryan just stood there. ‘Sit down, man, don’t draw attention to yourself.’
Ryan sat down, perched on the edge of the bench. He spoke. ‘Jackson Carter was not as he seemed, you know, he was on the take.’
Paul kept his cool, he was noted for that. ‘Why are you telling me this? Who told you to tell me?’
‘I was ordered to.’
‘I can’t tell you, the order came correctly encrypted. I obeyed.’
‘Ryan, are you free to tell me if you’ve been ordered to hit me?’
‘You have been ordered to hit me.’
‘Do you have a … theory … as to who’s behind these orders?’
‘Yes, Nicolette Jensen is behind it. Now I must go. Excuse me, Mr. Waley.’
He swiftly dematerialized onto the clammy street. Paul snapped open his mobile, scrambled, sat back and waited.
About twenty five minutes later, Nikki sauntered in and sat down opposite him. ‘Yes, Paul – I got here as soon as I could.’
He didn’t reply, just handed her the Datastore. She plugged it into her transponder and read the display. Paul read her eyes – she was clearly puzzled.
‘Is it true?’ he asked softly.
‘That I’m Hugh’s daughter? That’s a huge compliment to me.’
‘But it’s not true?’
‘Paul, look at me – seriously, do I look like his daughter? And I’m as French as they come too. Someone’s really trying very hard here and apart from the two murders, they’re not doing a very good job.’
‘But we do have a problem though.’
‘Yes Paul, one enormous problem. Someone’s inside, we have to sort this out. Stay with us, Paul, there’s strength in numbers.’
‘I plan to.’
He fell forward across the table, knocking the drinks to the floor. Nikki shrieked, shrank back and then burst into tears.
They weren’t in bed but in the garden, the only unbugged place they could be sure of, regularly patrolled by Sophie and gang. There were the two of them, plus Janine – she’d stay overnight.
Janine opened with a question. ‘It’s still all right in this garden?’
‘Sally monitors comings and goings as you know. As far as we know, yes.’
‘You’re fairly sure it’s this person?’
‘Yes but we’re back to the old question – how? How high is this person on the list? They can’t crack the primary code, that’s being controlled by Paul’s understudy -’
‘Well of course- I have one, Nikki has one, all key people have one.’
‘Of course, when you’re up here. The PM knows of it, he doesn’t know who they are, he doesn’t want to know. The issue is not the encryption, the issue is the hits on our personnel, because we don’t know how they do it. We can guess – an implant but when would they have got to do that?’
‘Mon dieu, now I know how. It just came to me.’ She got up and whispered it to Janine, then to him. ‘That’s how it was done – during training, which I don’t report to Hugh on a need to know. So what’s happened is that the area I’m in charge of, which our suspect has some contact with, includes the one I wrote on the paper, who is contact for the elements from the continent, he let them into that training room and the rest was mental implants, including memories. Also a destruct in each case. So now I know two others who will be hit, not Sentinels thank goodness but still our people. Hugh, I’ll whisper the names and you need to go to the middle of the garden and transpond, get them both into N5 tonight, no delay, thorough check.’
‘That still,’ said Janine, does not get us any further with how high our suspect is.’
‘Very high,’ replied Hugh who’d just come back and nodded to Nikki. ‘Maybe the highest.’
‘In that case,’ said Janine, ‘this might be beyond you. Why have they not cracked your codes?’
‘It might be beyond us. Now Janine, was that second question inspired or routine?’
‘I’m not saying they could not have latched onto it but you know it was to transfer all attention to Nikki’s area.’
‘Yes, the Prime Minister feels that, not that he’s not impressed, mind. If they could have wrecked the infrastructure by now, they would have and would have kept it to themselves but you saw no sign?’
‘Correction – Paul saw no sign, he was the boffin, with his understudy.’
‘Mme Jensen, I know these people, we deal with them the whole time – they’re exploring you as the weak link. That’s all I need say, I think you both know the score. Time for my forty winks I think.’
They stood and Janine took her leave for the east wing.
He went round to her and held her close. ‘Yes you can, you are as hard as nails, Nikki and it helps that we know their gameplan.’
‘I was as hard as nails, Bebe, I don’t think you understand what has happened to me … because I have not told you. I shall tell you if you pour the cognac.’
‘It’s about Germany. They would set up scenes to get me to agree to betray you. They brought someone in who had been badly treated and I was told that if I agreed, then that man would be saved. I said no the first and second times they tried it and shot the man in the head – I saw the blood go over the floor, I saw them clean it up afterwards, both times.
Do you know what that does to your mind? But Reinhart betrayed them and told me they were set-ups. He showed me a yearbook and on one page was one of those victims, plus him, plus others and they were all part of the same guard. I knew this but at the same time, it does affect you when they come in and do that.
They said they had my parents, who would not be harmed if I agreed. All that … just for you. They made me see you were not worth it. But I knew about my parents when I was in that house with Thierry – they brought me word and I shut it out – they blew up the car they were in and it was in the local paper.
So I knew. I shut it out because I knew it was going to happen – they had nowhere to go, they tried to go to Germany. We should have brought them with us but we also should have brought everyone else’s parents too and I didn’t want to worry them out of their minds.
That’s why I wanted to marry you – to hold onto your loyalty.’
‘Nikki, Nikki.’ He swiftly went round to her chair, knelt and held her close, stroking that short jagged hair he adored on her.
‘Hugh, I’ve never told you this but I believe in God, I think some things are meant to be and I was meant to see you again, maybe not for love but because we had things to do, you and I, higher things. I always believed I’d see you again, I can’t believe we will part.’
‘We will not part if it’s meant to be. Otherwise, who knows?’
‘When the exchange came, just before, they had something put in my brain which you know was taken out here – who knows if your people put something back in? But when I went into your Citadel and saw how insecure it was, how open Emma had left it, I was horrified.
I know we must do all this because if the Prime Minister falls – and it looks likely he will with these lines leading back to him – then we fall. So we have to be cavalier, as we always were. I know all that, I’m just saying I don’t know if I can take it, personally, after my time with them.’
She took a sip of coffee. ‘I immediately knew first day and you knew before that that our suspect was wrong and that’s what the Citadel is all about – the Masque and Celeste were just theatre.’
‘If it becomes too much, love, we will tell the PM and after a decent time, we will simply leave. He would understand these grounds – captivity trauma, we’d be looked after. But Nikki, I suspect it is going to fall apart soon because we must make it so – I think we’ve been too efficient in some ways, we were meant to monitor, not shut out.’
There were three of them left in the Citadel proper now – Rosa, Nikki and Hugh and the intensity of the attacks had stopped. There’d been no more Sentinels down and there were still three left, plus two Level 4s, fully operational and out there operating.
The Prime Minister had wanted to know why the trouble had stopped and Hugh had detailed their thoughts. He’d bought that but not the introduction of ‘otters’ into the discussion.
‘You chose to ask him now about the otters?’ Nikki smiled.
‘Well, when else could I ask him?’
Rosa was a little put out. ‘Would either of you two care to explain what all this is about?’
‘I’ll explain later, Rosa. What was his reaction?’
‘Well, he was sure I’d taken leave of my senses under the strain but when he saw I was serious, he agreed to have them moved to Rochester Pond, an ecologically acceptable environment, I’m informed.’
Nikki relaxed and allowed herself a smile, Rosa realized that that was the end of it and they returned to business.
Next meeting in London was soon after.
‘Pleasant surprise, Hugh, bringing Nicolette. Any further on our miscreants?’
‘Yes, sir, we need to get Sophie into Mr. Jamieson’s office – in other words, we need to supply you with pretexts for bringing her in.’
The PM turned to her and she began, he was obviously captivated by her, she knew it and blushed, precisely what she had not wanted to do, Hugh sighed inside. Anyway, the plan was comprehensive and drew people in he’d never thought could have been part of it.
Halfway through, he called in Janine.
‘Do your staff know of this yet?’
‘No, we’ll have a mini-conference this evening.’
Sophie, Marie-Ange, Nikki and Hugh were in the garden about 19:00.
Sophie was now apprised on what it was about and was not happy to leave the house for London but she saw the necessity, if it was not permanent and she could have her old job back. Ditto with Marie-Ange. Sophie thought it was quite rough on Nicolette to be arrested and interrogated.
‘Sophie, Marie-Ange, we need to bring you up to speed on this. We’re dealing here with a person or persons who are at a level which could capture Nikki and me, they have that reach – they could take Sophie too. We’re dealing with very dangerous people and money talks – the whole purpose of us even being in this purpose built home, the Citadel, all of it, is a smokescreen to flush certain people out and to identify the lines of communication – this has personal implications for the PM himself, and he needs to know because there are political moves he needs to make.
I’ve adored having you both here and Nikki has too but your whole purpose from the very first was as operatives.’
‘I know,’ said Sophie and Mari-Ange concurred. ‘I’ve just loved it, that’s all.’
‘And you’ll be coming back to the Citadel after the London stint – Marie-Ange will go back and forth either way, with me. The worst of it now is we must bring tension in, as if it were real, ask you to do things against your nature. Nikki will explain and you might not wish to continue – if there were any other way, we’d do it. You see, we’ve had too much success – the lines have gone quiet, we must stir it up. Nikki?’
‘First, I must order you and Marie-Ange out of the house because she caught Hugh in a compromising position with the two of you – we thought we needed to be realistic,’ was the entirely unnecessary addition, Hugh felt and those two smiling didn’t help. ‘Next day at the Citadel meeting, I am exposed by Hugh, he temporarily closes the Citadel, he is dismissed and I return to run the Citadel.’
‘Where will we be during the first part?’ asked Marie-Ange.
‘You are working with Janine, Sophie will work inside Jamieson’s office because you, Sophie, have started badmouthing Hugh to Janine about him trying to seduce you and Jamieson overhears it, Janine will make sure. Just watch and listen, you’ll know soon enough if something is not right.’
‘I don’t like it,’ said Sophie. ‘There are intended results and then there are those which will just happen and go further than you thought.’
‘I know this, Sophie,’ said Nicolette, quietly, do you think I don’t know this after Germany?’ Sophie went quiet. ‘But we must infiltrate Jamieson’s people, we must take the fight directly to them to see what happens. We’re so close to nailing a large number of them but we can’t do it while we’re protected up here. Paul developed our systems to the point where there was no further advanttage in their trying. So they started killing people.
‘Nikki’s a great little actress and I’m not too bad,’ he put in, ‘we’ve had a very long talk about it -’
‘Especially about getting big ideas going to our heads,’ added Nikki, ‘but we know who and what we’re doing it for. Mr. Featherstone is intimidating, yes, and I’m not looking forward to that but it has to be someone that formidable, otherwise it won’t wash – he reports direct to the PM.’
Nicolette took a sip. ‘The danger in something like this, as you, Sophie, were getting close to saying, is that people see their chance now to work on each of us separately, bringing stories to us on the others, we start to have actual doubts, real doubts now about our partners and friends. This is where we need both of you to help us – you will need to communicate those things to us through a chain of people you trust. You are both vital in this but it also gives you the power to destroy our marriage if you wanted.’
‘I don’t like it,’ repeated Sophie, ‘but I see it’s necessary. I’m sure Marie-Ange will say too – we won’t let you down.’ Marie-Ange concurred.
‘We just have to play it as it comes.’
‘All right,’ said Hugh, ‘it starts tomorrow but let us give you all the details now, including our trip overseas which comes later. You’re both part of that too.’
Next evening, at 18:00, Rosa called him and at 19:00 she arrived at the house. Sally saw her through.
‘Nicolette not here, Chief? Sophie? Celeste?’
‘You chose a good evening – there’s been some trouble. Speak, Rosa. Sally will get you a snack and something to drink – tell her now.’
She did, Sally went and brought back coffee and apple strudel, they sat and Rosa started. ‘Have you checked any of Nikki’s account balances in the last ten days?’
‘No, I don’t usually.’
‘Do it, Chief.’
‘Come with me.’ He led her to the computer room and accessed Nikki’s account details. ‘£5000 deposited last Wednesday.’
‘Now enter these codes, chief.’
‘What are they?’
‘Never mind what they are, enter them.’
‘OK, it’s an account. Whose?’
‘Check the withdrawals.’
‘£5000 withdrawn last Wednesday.’
‘That’s my Jim’s account. Another thing, Chief. I noticed now that you accessed her account without a password.’
‘Yep, our accounts are open to each other. We use one password to enter the computer. No secrets – it has to be so.’
‘Very touching. Your idea or hers?’
‘And she went along with it?’
‘Wouldn’t a woman who knows that £5000 is coming her way do something to create a password? Or alternatively, wouldn’t she start up a new account in another name?’
‘What are you saying?’
‘She either doesn’t know about this money, she’s naïve or else she’s an amazingly cool operator.’
‘How did he get her account details then?’
‘Good question, isn’t it?’
‘This is your husband, Rosa.’
‘I can’t help that.’
‘Rosa, wouldn’t he pay her in cash?’
‘No, he’d have to physically withdraw it and I could check on that. This way, a few presses of a few buttons and it’s done, provided he had the codes. This is the game he’s in, Chief.’
‘She’d give him the code? Is there an innocent explanation which would clear him?’
‘Oh yes, Chief, there is. She needed the money herself, to pay someone off. Or she may have been paying for information.’
‘Information that would have compromised you.’
‘Is your husband guilty, Rosa?’
‘I think he knows a hell of a lot more than he’s saying and I think he found a lot going on with Paul and Jackson. Since you allowed him in, which I’m grateful for, he’s uncovered a fair bit. As for guilt – what is guilt? Guilty of what?’
‘Why wasn’t I brought into this?’
‘Because someone had something to lose if you knew. No matter how openly you ran the Section, you were the Chief and had the power to hire and fire. There’s no getting away from that, despite all your egalitarian gestures.’
‘I see. So, what do you suggest?’
‘I suggest we consider this scenario. Some years back, Hugh Jensen set up an organization and rose so swiftly that certain interests had no time to crack the security screen that was put around the cabinet.
That screen meant no graft inside the cabinet, aside from the usual ‘commercial’ interests. Naturally, Mr. Jensen was a target but to physically remove him was pointless because security would be made all the more tight.’
‘So what started the rot, in your opinion?’
Rosa paused, then decided to lay her cards on the table. ‘It’s quite simple really. They must make you look incompetent and exploit any division of any kind between you and Nicolette. She only needs to look at you in an exasperated way or for you to act in a cavalier way with her, which any woman would resent and they have the fissure to pry open.
Then they have the regular weapons – disinformation, hacking, disabling devices and so on. They also had Emma don’t forget.
It seems that splitting you two up is some sort of a key move in all this, then, with you separated, the rest will fall, being in two factions. Our greatest strength was when everyone worked together and we were open with each other.
I don’t think it matters who the commercial elements are behind this. If it isn’t the mafia, then it’s some contractor. These things will always be with us. We could be riddled with subversives but if we still essentially do our job, the net effect is that the prime directive is protected.’
‘Right, Rosa. Thanks. Nikki’s gone too, we’ll do it tomorrow at work. Bring your husband.’
She drank down her coffee and departed.
In the Citadel were Rosa, her husband Jim, Nicolette and Doug Baines.
‘Mr. Carrington, said Hugh, ‘did you pay Nicolette £5000? If so, why?’
Carrington looked over at his wife, who looked away – she hadn’t prepared him for this. Not knowing what to say, he felt the truth might be the best way. ‘Yes, I did.’ Nicolette gasped. ‘She said she needed to pay for some information.’
‘And you never thought to tell me this, Nikki?’
She clammed up but Jim Carrington went on. ‘I work for the CEC -’
‘That’s the Deputy-PM’s outfit, isn’t it?’
‘Council for Economic Cooperation, yes, I do much of their IT.’
‘The man the PM sent here for training, under Paul – Chris Jones – isn’t he CEC?’
‘Doug, hand all parties here, please, a copy of the second sheet in your case.’ He did so and the looks of shock all round were something to behold. ‘Chris Jones came into £5000 the day our Sentinels were hit. Anyone care to explain?’
Nicolette stood in a daze, walked towards the double doors and turned to say, ‘I suppose they’re out there, are they?’ Then she turned and went through.
Rosa was stunned. ‘Chief, she’s not guilty of anything, what are you doing to her?’
‘Better we choose who does it rather than the PM decides … or the CEC. I’m using Featherstone.’
‘He’s not physical, he’s independent, he’s the only one who would satisfy Jamieson, once he knows.’
‘He might not be physical but he’s worse in his way.’
‘I can’t help that – tell me what other choice I have?’
‘This looks like the end of the Citadel to me, Chief.’
Nicolette’s room was not uncomfortable.
There were no pictures on the walls of the three metre by four metre room – just a bed, two compact, vinyl cushioned armchairs, a metre wide cupboard with four coathangers in it and a recording device.
Her feet were cold in this weather or maybe it was just this building.
She was in a tracksuit but she’d neglected to put on her thick woolly socks, and the muscles in her feet were contracted with fear. Sitting cross legged on the floor, her back against the wall, she rubbed some circulation back into the toes – they looked anything but pretty right now in their scrawny redness.
The door opened and there was Mr. Featherstone. He closed the door quietly behind him and bade her sit down.
It was the day to collect Nikki, which was done without too much fuss – Hugh signed the release form, she was now in the car and they were outside Featherstone’s office.
Hugh got out and climbed the steps. It had to have been the dingiest, dankest, most ancient, rat infested corner of a governmental maze you could ever have hoped not to see. There was no air conditioning and only rudimentary heating on the wall. Only the milder temperatures today made it bearable.
He was a slight man of medium height, Featherstone, but with enormously piercing blue-grey eyes. Hugh felt guilty even taking a biscuit to have with his tea, under the glare of Featherstone’s scrutiny.
‘In a nutshell, sir, I’d say she is sound. It was quite gentle, there were childhood scars, there was the incarceration in Germany, she does not like this cloak and dagger.’
‘And your advice?’
‘She is vulnerable just now, she needs a lot of care.’
‘I see. Thank you, Mr. Featherstone.’
In the car, he asked her, ‘Nikki, how much was real and how much put on with Featherstone?’
‘What do you mean?’
He told her the conversation and she was astounded how astute Featherstone was. ‘I intend to follow his advice and care for you.’
‘I want to kiss you so much, I want this thing to stop but you saying that now, I have the strength to go on with this charade for now. Where are you taking me?’
‘To the Citadel, you’ll work late with Level 3s around, you’ll sleep there and not come home, I’ll be frantic and will try to call you but you’ll cut me short. You know where the bed is. Now look wooden, darling, in a daze.’
Rosa knocked and came through, closing the double doors behind her. ‘Chief, are you ready to deal with this?’
‘Yep. I’ll explain at the assembly point.’
One hour and five minutes later, they found themselves in a nice little picnic lay-by, replete with brick BBQ, close to a clump of cypresses but the chill was in the air and they wanted out of there soon.
The Level 2s parked their vehicles in a sort of protective formation and fell to surveying the surrounding area, occasionally speaking into their two-ways. It was understood that this meeting had a time limit of fifteen minutes.
‘Someone in the Praetorian, I have no idea, sent word we were to be hit at 17:00 today – one bomb to reception and one to the Citadel and the Muslims would get the blame.’
‘Unless it was a false alarm, designed to monitor our escape procedure,’ commented Nikki.
‘Doesn’t matter, either way,’ said Hugh. ‘We now split into pairs, each driven by a Level 2 to a jump off point. We all know the procedures – any questions?’
They split, changed vehicles and departed.
Hugh and Nikki found themselves side by side in the back of a Rover driven by a Level 2 named Stan Whitcomb. He spoke not a word, just drove, negotiating the horn-blasting, cursing, engine-overheating stress of rush hour, cross town travel, straining to capture what he could of the conversation on the backseat, of which there was none.
They didn’t seem to like each other, those two.
Rosa glanced at Jim in the back seat of the Ford Escort and put a hand on his lap. ‘Everything’s going to be OK, Jim.’ He placed his hand over hers and smiled. Paul Mason, Level 3, whose car it was, leaned back and asked where they wanted to be dropped.
‘Crawford Road, No. 34,’ replied Rosa.
At Crawford Road, they alighted, having arranged that Mason would take the luggage to the hotel directly. The first question from Jim was, ‘What’s at 34 Crawford Road?’
‘I’ve no idea.’ They spent the day going from gallery to gallery – Theresa Bradley, the Outon, the 90s Masters exhibit.
Just after 19:00, the cab dropped them at the Sheraton.
It was a modest room, Jim Carrington rang for room service and dinner was to be in keeping with that – he ordered two burgers, while she tried to contact the other two.
‘Can’t get them,’ she complained.
‘Rosa, what are you doing?’ Jim was appalled, ‘No electronic communication for 48 hours.’
‘I just wanted to know they were safe.’
‘What’s come over you?’
‘All right, all right, keep your shirt on.’
He awoke around 03:15 and sensed she wasn’t beside him.
Bathroom, he thought. He switched on the bed lamp and jumped out and went to the bathroom. Putting on that light, he opened the bathroom door and poked his head inside.
Nothing, no sign.
He went back to bed and thought whether to leave the light on or not. He decided to switch it off and lay there in the dark for what seemed like hours. Something told him not to go out to find her. If she’d gone out, there’d be a reason. She’d often go downstairs at home in the middle of the night.
In the end, weariness overcame him and he drowsed off.
It was about 05:00 when he became aware of someone in the room and was relieved it was her.
‘Where the hell have you been?’