Old spies don’t die, they just go deeper under cover.
He’d said that to her, his skin like paper, the oxygen mask capturing the words so he had to fight to push them out. She’d smiled and nodded, that precise, disciplined gesture that she only allowed herself when it was all she could do. She was going to lose him soon, and then what the hell did she have?
The work. And that ridiculous bulldog.
She grieved, because it was all she knew how to do. Took the statutory time off. Came back a week earlier than she should or wanted, one part because she needed something to do other than pack up his things. Another part because it was a boy’s club and that meant the rules were different for her. She didn’t like it, in fact it made her bloody furious, but it was what it was.
So she came back and worked hard, and Berlin happened, then Hong Kong and then… Thames House, and an office so vast she was reasonably certain her student flat at Oxford could have fitted inside four times over.
Gunfire. Music. A laughing man, and one who never laughed.
‘Here we go, ma’am.’ The BMW pulled up and she looked around. London at night, a handful of stars scattered across black velvet. Dreadful poetry, he’d have hated it, but it was what it always reminded her of. She loved this city, purely and completely, in a way that only someone not born here could ever achieve. London was a sanctuary for her, a place to return to after her time on the frontlines, a castle as inviolate and impregnable as that ridiculous bloody office.
Rain. A flash of heat. Thames House’s upper storey engulfed in flame.
‘Ma’am?’ The driver -- polite, courteous and on a timetable. She nodded, smiled tightly. ‘Sorry, thank you Mr?’ His voice, calm and deep and a little amused. ‘Conrad, ma’am. Just call me Conrad.’
‘Thank you, Conrad.’ The door was opened for her, and she stepped out onto the street, her breath already misting. In front of her, the club’s black and gold awning, in, of course, Times New Roman:
The Diogenes Club
She set herself. Time to be amongst them. Boy’s club be damned, she thought as she stepped inside. The black and white marble floor echoed beneath her feet and nearby, someone was playing ‘As Time Goes By’ on a piano which, she was pleased to realize, was actually tuned. The stairs in front of her swept up and to the right with Gene Kelly grace. and the hall opened on either side of her, bar on the left, dining room on the right.
‘Good evening, ma’am. Your table’s waiting.’ The butler, precise, neat, stupidly young. She nodded assent, thanks, and followed him. Checked the exits, checked the number of people, worked out who to get through, how best to cause a scene. Always working, always aware. That’s what she told her boys and girls, back when she was young enough to think of them like that. Back before Hong Kong. Before London.
A shadow against the window and just a moment, a sliver, where she let herself be ready. This was it, this was death. Then she recognised it.
‘Where the hell have you been?’
Through ranks of full tables, all clattering with upper class dinner conversation. She recognised a few faces: the haunted, brilliant Northern cryptographer scribbling on a napkin; the top hat and tailed gentleman, his butler ever on standby; and the three bright young men in the corner, talking animatedly when they weren’t frantically checking to see who was listening. The two intense young Americans, one accompanied, one alone, each with their back to the walls and their eyes on the exits. The pantheon of animals, the Great and the Good of modern espionage.
‘Your table, ma’am.’ A good one too -- elevated, with a view out across the river. Set for two, although she was the first to arrive. French windows three steps down, put a chair through them and dive into the bloody river if she needed to. Always know your exits.
Going into battle in front of politicians younger than her children would have been. All feral eyes and desperate, venal sound bites. Once, she’d called one of her agents a dinosaur. She knew how he felt now.
‘A drink, ma’am?’
‘Scotch, 12 year, Macallan please. On the rocks.’
‘Of course.’ She sat down, didn’t slump, watched the river. From here you could almost see Thames House (burning), almost hear the Underground (a ripple of detonation, a scream of metal as the train leaves the-). She loved it, the feeling of being in the city but not of the city. She closed her eyes and breathed out for a long time.
‘Good evening, ma’am.’
Nothing had startled her since Hong Kong. She opened her eyes to a short, precise man, his face somewhat froggish, walking towards her. He was wearing a suit and tie and, behind him, she could see the butler making his way back down the club with a ghastly sou’wester slung over one arm. She stood, extended a hand.
‘Good evening, I don’t think we’ve met.’
The man shook her hand and smiled widely. ‘No, we haven’t. I was slightly before your time. Did Conrad look after you on the journey here?’
‘Yes, yes of course.’ She blinked and watched the small man pick up a menu and begin flicking through it. ‘I was surprised to be invited, to be honest.’
From behind the menu, his voice was flat, a little tinny. ‘I’m honestly surprised you weren’t invited sooner. The first female head, not just of Section, but of MI:5 itself. A Cold War warrior, to boot. You spent time in Berlin I believe, just as the wall fell?’
He already knew. He was being polite. She let him. ‘I was station chief there, yes.’
‘I love Berlin.’ He put the menu down. ‘May I recommend the steak and kidney pie?’
‘I was thinking the wiener schnitzel.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Nothing from Hong Kong?’
A smiling, perfect face, sunk in on itself. Love and hate clouding the back of his eyes.
‘I prefer not to talk about my time there.’
‘May I ask why?’
‘I didn’t catch your name.’ Don’t railroad me, sonny.
‘No you didn’t, perhaps later. Why not Hong Kong?’
‘I lost my first agent there.’
He nodded, eyes genuine, sympathetic. ‘The worst thing we can do is lose one of our flock. How did you cope?’
The words forming now, and she could feel her husband next to her. This was going to be easy, this was going to be the last thing she had to do. Her voice didn’t crack at all:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
‘What was his name?’
‘Silva. Raoul Silva.’
‘Was he a good man?’
‘No.’ Back under control now.
‘Did you see him again?’
A burning house, a frozen moor, Silva pressed against her, weeping.
That would be quite enough of that.
She leant forward, tone on the edge of forceful. ‘I’d like some answers please.’
He nodded. ‘I thought you might.’
Blood pouring from her side, Kincade nearby.
‘Why am I here?’
‘You mean why aren’t you with your husband?’
She glared at him. ‘Quite.’
He took his glasses off, cleaned them with the fat end of his tie. ‘For the same reason I’m not with my wife. People in our line of work keep themselves hidden for so long that we leave a mark on the world, when we go. You are with your husband, in every sense you wish to be. This club, your memories, are just an echo of your passing.’ He smiled. ‘I like to think of it like this. We struggle our whole lives to keep ourselves concealed. In death, we’re finally allowed to leave our mark.’
She was taking this surprisingly well, she thought. ‘How long does it last?’
‘As long as you want it to. Mycroft has a theory about that, you can meet him later.’
‘What do you do here?’
‘Eat, drink, talk.’ He smiled again. ‘Play chess.’
She laughed, clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘How utterly stereotypical.’
His smile widened. ‘The Russians even drink vodka.’
This laugh escaped, pure and loud and completely innocent. She hadn’t laughed that way in years. Her companion leant forward, his face suddenly serious. ‘You did great work, for a long time. We’re all very proud of you.’ She nodded, closed her eyes, feeling it rise and hating herself for letting it show.
When the man spoke again it was softly, kindly. ‘I find it’s not the circumstances of our departure that matters but the way in which people treated us before that. I know what happened at the Select Committee, I saw how quickly your agents, and your successor, rushed to defend you. I know what he in particular did to not only protect you, but to secure your legacy.’
Her bulldog. A late night in the office, updating her will. A single, glorious moment of mischief. He’d HATE it.
‘I was lucky.’
‘You were good. Better than most.’
‘Better than you?’ A challenge to her voice, but the tiniest hint of mischief. The man inclined his head, conceding. ‘Perhaps a game of chess later?’ She chuckled and gratefully accepted her Macallan as the waiter set it down in front of her, a glass of red in front of her guest. He raised it and she followed suit. ‘What’s the toast?’
‘To old spies. And new opportunities.’
Her husband, his skin like paper. Her office. Her people rushing to protect her. Her bulldog. Scarred and broken and still inviolate, still standing guard.
‘Though much is taken, much abides.’
She raised her glass. The Macallan had never tasted so fine.