It was late afternoon when the call came.
Alex was stacking the dishwasher. It was a creaking lump of steel and dishwasher tablets, but they couldn't afford a new one and still hope to eat enough to actually have dishes to wash. Besides, they had decided that they rather liked its little quirks and had even given it a name: 'Hector'. Why 'Hector', none of them had ever quite worked out; it just sounded ancient and creaky and it stuck. Alex was halfway through loading up the cutlery compartment when his other flatmate, Sasha Gregory, sauntered in, proffering the phone and explaining in her broad Scottish accent that there was an 'old guy who wants to speak to you'.
If Alex had been interested, Sasha would probably have been ideal girlfriend material, or at least good for a one-night stand. She certainly wouldn't complain. She'd been dropping hints to Alex practically since the night they met, but he'd always seemed oblivious. Being turned into a superspy before you finished high school tended to mean that you didn't have much time to take notice of girls, and Alex still missed Sabina, anyway. Sasha had movie star looks; a healthy golden (bottle) tan, bleach blonde ringlets which looked like they'd been styled by someone who came with a £1000 price tag, and legs that went on forever. Her only problem was that she knew it. She exuded an air of indifference towards most men, which said 'I'm so far out of your league that you shouldn't even speak to me'. At first, Alex had found this irritating, but after a while, he realised that she was a lot more interesting than he'd given her credit for and they ended up getting on like a house on fire, much to the consternation of Joe, who wondered why Alex didn't 'just shag her and get it over with'. Unsurprisingly, Joe didn't have much luck with girls either.
He took the phone from Sasha's outstretched hand and lifted it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Ah. Alex, so glad you could take time out of your busy schedule to answer my call." If Alex didn't know any better, he would have assumed that Blunt was trying to be sarcastic. Since he did know better, he assumed Blunt's tone was biting. He gave a non-committal noise in answer to the statement; it was safest that way.
When the silence prevailed, he said eventually, "What do you want?"
"I'm afraid we need you back in London immediately. There's a case come up that we can't deal with without your help." Blunt replied, his tone neutral again.
"I have a life here, you know," said Alex, feeling anger bubble up inside him. "You promised me that you wouldn't just yank me out of here whenever you felt like it!"
"We don't 'feel like it'. This is an important mission, and I daresay, Alex, that I can't hang Miss Starbright's visa over your head anymore, but I think you'll find that I can do that with your degree. All that waste, all that debt, all for nothing…" Blunt's voice trailed off, letting the poison of his words sink in.
Alex sighed. "Alright. I'll catch the train tomorrow."
"Good. Mr Crawley will meet you at the station."
"I can find my own way to Liverpool Street, thanks."
"Nevertheless," replied Blunt. "There can be no accidents. We certainly don't want Miss Starbright to be presented with a bouquet of black tulips, do we?"
"Fine. I'll see Crawley tomorrow," barked Alex, wishing for the phone call to be over.
"Mr Crawley, Alex," corrected Blunt, and once again, Alex was reminded of just how much authority the man had.
"Yeah. That too." He still felt like a schoolboy, throwing out petty insults instead of truly cutting remarks, but Blunt made his skin crawl and a snide comment was his only defence mechanism.
"Goodbye, Alex." The line went dead.
Alex let out the breath he didn't realise he'd been holding. "Who was that?" asked Sasha, leaning against the doorframe.
"Technically," said Alex, biting down on the word with his teeth. "He's my legal guardian."
"Nice man?" she teased.
"Oh yeah," replied Alex. "He's a real peach." Then he snorted out a laugh. The idea of Alan Blunt paired with any colour but grey was hilarity personified.
The train ride was dull. Grey clouds streaked the horizon and grey drizzle streaked the windows. Crawley met him as he came through the ticket barrier.
"Good to see you, Alex," he said, taking Alex's hold-all with one hand and shaking Alex's hand with the other.
"Is it?" he replied sarcastically.
The journey to Liverpool Street only took a few stops on the tube and they both remained silent; Alex twiddling his thumbs, Crawley flicking through a copy of 'The Metro', which had been wedged into the space next to him. The paper looked wrong in the hands of a man like Crawley. Perhaps it was because Alex knew what he was, but the man would have looked far more at home with one of the big-name broadsheets, or perhaps a financial magazine. He wondered if maybe anything related to finance was a bit of a joke to the people who worked in Special Operations, but before he had chance to remind himself that no one in Special Operations seemed to have a sense of humour, the doors beeped and slid back against the wall of the train as the cool computerised voice announced that the train was now standing at Liverpool Street Station.
The 'Royal & General Bank' was as grey as its name, and it definitely worked as a good cover for what most people assumed to be one of the more 'colourful' government agencies. Crawley led the way to the lift and pressed the button, which surreptitiously read his fingerprint and body temperature, and a security camera, which was hidden behind a disguised wall panel, swung around to take in the view of Crawley and Alex stepping into the lift. Sitting behind his desk and watching the camera's view on his computer, Alan Blunt steepled his fingers and allowed the corners of his mouth to twitch upwards into the closest thing to a smile they knew. The door opened and Mrs Jones walked in, unwrapping a peppermint as she held the door open for Alex. Crawley left discreetly.
"Ah. Alex. Good to see you." Alex wondered why everyone was saying that to him, but at least Blunt said it as if he didn't particularly want to; just a formality to get over and done with before they got down to cold, hard business.
Blunt gestured to a seat and Alex sunk down into it, asking, "So, what's so important that no one else was good enough for?" He didn't see the point in indulging them with niceties; he was thoroughly pissed off.
Mrs Jones frowned. "It's a delicate matter, Alex."
"It always is."
"Have you heard of David O'Connell?" she asked.
"The PhiTech billionaire?"
"The very same," said Blunt, evidently taking over. "He has become a liability. We had intelligence from another of our field agents that O'Connell had several meetings with Yassen Gregorovich, before continuing the meetings with another contract killer after Gregorovich's death. His name is The Gentleman, Alex. I believe you've heard of him?"
"Sure. Black tulip guy, right?"
Blunt sniffed, making sure that Alex knew his choice of words and off-hand delivery of them was distasteful. "Yes."
"Well, so what? He wants someone killed. It's hardly an important job that no one else could take on…"
"Actually, Alex," cut in Mrs Jones. "It's not quite as simple as all that. You've only heard half the story."
Blunt waved a hand. "PhiTech has always been particularly generous to university students, taking them under its corporate wing and giving them some much-needed experience of the world of work, and particularly the inner workings of a multi-billion pound, part-government funded company. That's a lot of influence and contacts for any young person to take away with them and as you would imagine, it's a coveted placement, but it just so happens that there are two spaces left available."
"Convenient," muttered Alex, but Blunt never missed a beat.
"Isn't it just." It wasn't a question. "Because you see, Alex, The Gentleman may have assassinated Michael Roscoe, but his primary usage is for bringing down governments…"
Alex's head lifted slightly. "So you want me to join this program and spy on O'Connell, right?"
"Yes, Alex. That is exactly what I would like you to do."
"But you said there was two free placements…"
"Indeed. This project requires a team. Whilst you have proven to be resourceful on your own in the past, Alex, you will need someone who already has access to vital inside information. Your task is to investigate O'Connell. Agent Stryker's is to infiltrate PhiTech and to investigate any possible connection to Scorpia. Considering your involvement with them, I'm sure you can understand my urgency to send you on this mission."
Alex sighed, resigning himself to the mission ahead of him. "So when do I meet this Agent Stryker?"
"Tomorrow. We've set up a meeting between the two of you at the SAS base you both trained at. The helicopter that will take you to the Brecon Beacons leaves in an hour so I suggest you spend this time explaining to your university why you will be taking a two-week leave of absence. I trust that you realise by now not to mention any involvement with us?"
"Sure. I signed the Official Secrets Act, didn't I?"
"You did, Alex. I merely expect you to abide by it." Mrs Jones showed Alex to the door.