Thank you to everyone who has been kind enough to read and review this story. Regular readers will know that I don't like writing endings. I hope this one is not a let-down!
It was three days later that the video emerged. I had been across the river at Vauxhall Cross, trying to get access to some of their Russian sources and obtain any information about the recent movements, or current whereabouts, of Viktor Sarkisian. All our own contacts, inside and outside the Russian embassy, had gone silent, and the handshake protocol, which Malcolm said Harry had used in order to talk to Sarkisian during the crisis, wasn't responding at all. I was never given the warmest of welcomes at Six - memories were long, and rancour ran deep - and I was leaving, empty-handed and intensely frustrated, when my mobile rang.
"Ros," Lucas said without preamble, "we need you back here. Fast."
His voice was tight with urgency, and I walked back as quickly as I could without actually breaking into a run. Never attract attention in public. Lucas had only come back on duty that morning. On our return from London Bridge, he had barely got through the doors of Thames House before he passed out on me. One look, and the duty doctor had dispatched him to the nearest hospital, where they'd dealt with his wound – fairly superficial, thank God – and kept him in overnight despite his protests. I'd been relieved to see him back. The sight of Harry's empty office, that syrupy bloody female voice on his phone – 'the subscriber you have called is not available' – and the anxious, expectant eyes of every officer on the Grid watching me as if they thought I was going to whisk off an Invisibility Cloak and reveal Harry standing next to me, were almost too much for me to bear without the support of his presence.
I found him, Jo, and Malcolm in the conference room. Lucas explained that a video had shown up on the Net.
"We pulled it as soon as we found it," he added, and set it to 'play'.
For an awful second I thought I was going to faint myself; my ears were buzzing and I felt myself becoming clammy with sweat. I swallowed hard to contain the nausea, and somehow managed to keep my composure. I noticed that Lucas was running his hand compulsively around the back of his neck as he watched the screen; he looked grey.
Like him, I recognised the armbands on the men in the film – members of a happy little band of Islamic nutcases known as SARV – and assumed that Sarkisian had traded Harry on to them. In the increasingly commercial world of international hostage-taking, he'd be a valuable prize. The question, of course, was whether the execution the video showed was real, or a sophisticated fake. I hated even discussing the question, but there was no way round it; what we did would depend on the answer. The trouble was, I couldn't bring myself to say even that it might be real, out loud. Quite apart from the fact that I knew that doing so would probably cause morale to plummet, I had a superstitious dread myself that voicing such a statement would turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I argued against it. In the end, it was Malcolm who did the dirty work for me. He shook his head, like Eeyore faced with a day of rainy weather.
You're just talking yourselves into optimism.
The worst of it was that he wasn't wrong. I think it was knowing that, on top of the sheer, terrifying horror of that video, which made me turn on him.
"Well, what do you suggest, Malcolm? Should we start discussing a poem for his memorial service?" His response was the last thing I expected.
"Don't you dare patronise me!" He looked at me with utter disgust – a look I hadn't seen since the day I walked onto the Grid, tainted by my father's complicity in the death of his closest friend. Beside me, I felt Jo shrink in her seat, and Lucas glanced sharply at me. I wanted to scream at them, to give vent to the feelings that had been choking me ever since Harry's disappearance. Don't you understand? I can't do this alone – not without him! It took everything I had, but I forced the rising shriek down again.
"Sorry, Malcolm. I was rude, and my comment was uncalled for." I was grateful when Lucas stepped into the edgy silence and wrapped things up. When he headed for a quiet corner of the Grid, I followed him. He rubbed his hand gently between my shoulder blades. Thank God. Someone understands.
"All right now?" he asked gruffly.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's just … seeing Harry like that." I shuddered. "Even if it's fake …"
"I know." He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes for a second. It was only momentary, but it was a forceful reminder that Harry meant just as much to him as he did to me. I had done my utmost to keep my relations with Harry strictly professional over the years, but I'd failed, I knew. He had offered the support, stability, and affection that the breach with my father had denied me, and like a needy child, I'd grabbed them with both hands. In Lucas's case it was his pride and approval that mattered, the paternal sanction that guided his every bloody move. Neither of us would admit it, but without him, both of us were lost.
And if you stand here feeling bloody sorry for yourself, Myers, so will he be. I was about to say as much when a clerk arrived with the Service file on Abdul Hussein, a radical from the Watchlist whom we suspected of having links with SARV. I was just flicking through it when Lucas's phone rang. He turned to me, his eyes gleaming.
"They've found Sarkisian's body."
At last! Something we could work on. I ordered him to go and identify it, and went straight to the Home Office to get clearance from Nicholas Blake to question Abdul Hussein.
To my exasperation, and despite his obvious sympathy, he refused – too politically sensitive. He was backed up by a Stephen Hillier from Six, who had been remarkably absent during my visit there. Once we'd left the office, though, he told me, in the oblique, unattributable manner that I'd got used to in a decade of working there, that he thought I could, and should, go ahead anyway. I went back to the Grid resolved to follow his advice, remembering how Harry had taken on Arkady Kachimov in defiance of just such a ban after Adam's death. When I told Lucas of my decision he smiled grimly in approval.
"Have you thought of pumping Kachimov? He must know most of what Sarkisian knew – probably more." When I didn't answer, he frowned. "Ros? He's ours now, after all."
Trapped. Because of Lucas's ambivalent attitude to Kachimov – hatred mixed with the Stockholm-syndrome style affection – Harry and I had decided he shouldn't know that the Russian had died, and certainly not how. But my hesitation had already suggested there was something he didn't know. I couldn't risk undermining his commitment to searching for Harry, so I settled for a half-truth.
"Kachimov's dead, Lucas. We can't ask him anything." I saw shock on his face, and swept on quickly before it had time to take a hold. "Get Hussein's psychological reports sent over. Malcolm," as the tech specialist arrived at my side, "what is it?"
It turned out to be a word in an unexpected language on the video. It suggested that the terrorists might not be who they claimed to be, and it offered a tiny glimmer of hope. Which we needed, especially when a thorough and time-consuming perusal of Hussein's records proved conclusively that he wasn't a member of SARV and never had been. He had, however, claimed Stephen Hillier had been present when he was tortured at Guantanamo. I was livid with Hillier for using me to wage a personal bloody vendetta and endangering Harry even further in the process, and for a moment felt overwhelmed with despair that our only lead had taken us straight into a dead end. Now where?
Malcolm provided the answer. He was still angry with me, and had been directing anything he had to say to me through Lucas, but I wouldn't have cared this time if he'd had it conveyed from the tech suite by carrier pigeon. Lucas had told me earlier that Malcolm thought he had identified a house in the Russian Oligarch Belt in Surrey (colloquially known in MI-5 as the Robber Belt) to which Harry could have been taken. I had asked him to send a team to check it out, but hadn't dared let myself hope that it would lead to anything. Now Malcolm reported their findings with a quiet air of triumph: evidence of several people having died there and traces of blood, DNA analysis of which had identified one of them as Viktor Sarkisian. None of them corresponded to Harry.
"They used the Russian's blood to simulate the pool at Harry's head," he concluded.
Lucas looked up at me. He didn't speak, but the expression on his face said it all. Finally, I allowed myself a smile of relief as Jo put it into words.
Lucas and I were splitting the night hours on the Grid; with the approval of Nicholas Blake, I had decreed that normal working hours would be abandoned until Harry was found. So I was on duty when Malcolm – who seemed to have moved there permanently - came out of the tech suite at just after six a.m. He looked as if he'd been sharing his accommodation with the Grim Reaper in person, and my stomach lurched.
"What is it, Malcolm?"
"I've just received a Code 10," he answered. He sounded as if he didn't believe his own words. "From Ruth."
I thought sleeplessness was affecting my hearing. "Ruth?"
He nodded. "She's in trouble. She needs our help."
I almost pointed out that a) this wasn't the Milbank Citizens Advice Bureau, and b) we had enough sodding trouble of our own to be going on with. Thank God I stopped myself in time. Malcolm would never have forgiven me a second patronising comment, and he and Ruth had always been good friends. More important than the social niceties, however, were the warning signals going off in my mind. This couldn't be coincidence. Ruth Evershed had gone into exile what … three years ago? Why suddenly re-emerge now? Somehow, she had to be connected to Harry's disappearance.
I dispatched Malcolm to bring her in, and summoned Lucas back to the Grid. I was in Harry's office, studying both Harry and Ruth's Service files, when I saw Malcolm guiding her in through the pods. He headed for the kitchen, and I watched Lucas approach her. I should have gone myself; I was in charge. But whatever demons had driven this sudden Lord-Lucan-in-Reverse-job on Ruth's part, it had raised a few for me, too. I still believed I'd done my duty in reporting her all those years ago. I'd told Adam the same – and it was partly true. But I was trained to recognise lies, especially my own, and I knew that resentment of Harry, anger at Ruth's comments about my father and sheer, vengeful spite had played their part, too. I'd come to terms with the knowledge, but I hadn't expected to be sharing the stage with the other leading lady in that little drama again.
"Ruth." I searched my brain for something else to say. 'Welcome back' sounded completely wrong, and 'good to see you' wouldn't have been true. I settled for 'I'm sorry about all this'. Malcolm had reported that she had escaped from unwelcome visitors to her home in Cyprus with a husband and young son, but they weren't my concern right now. I sat down. Ruth watched me.
"I'm told you're Section Chief now." It was a simple statement of fact, but I wondered if I had been the only one to hear a note of censure in it.
"Yes." I glanced at Lucas. My reading of her file and Harry's had revealed nothing helpful, but I remained convinced that something which linked the two of them, perhaps something he had told her and no-one else, had brought 'visitors' – dusky-skinned Oriental-looking visitors, apparently - to her doorstep. Whatever my personal discomfort, we had to find out whether she knew what, if anything, that might be. So I asked her.
Her revelations about Harry's thwarting of a plot to plant weapons-grade uranium on the unsuspecting Iraqis, and his confiding in her where he had subsequently hidden it, gave us the reason behind Harry's abduction. Within a few minutes she had added the 'who' to the 'why': Libby McCall, now outgoing CIA station chief in London, a former member of the Indian Intelligence Bureau, and an MI-6 officer codenamed 'Ronnie'. Stephen bloody Hillier. I stood up.
"Ruth, Jo will take you back to your family. You'll be safe. I'm sorry I can't do more for you all now, but we have to deal with this immediately."
She gave a thin smile. "The job comes first. Of course. Spoken like a true Section Chief, Ros."
I saw Jo look away quickly, but I pretended I hadn't heard, and went back to the Home Office, determined to find out what Nicholas Blake must have known about the Iraq business. As it turned out, very little other than the name of the IIB renegade, Amish Mani. At least now our target had a name. It was progress, not enough, but a step forward. The last thing I needed was to then find that we'd also taken a giant step back, and that Ruth and her family had been kidnapped from their safe house. I knew Hillier had to be involved; only someone on the inside of the security service could have found out where she was.
Lucas and I sped off in different directions; he to charm McCall's replacement, Sarah Caulfield, whose acquaintance he had made over Viktor Sarkisian's corpse, into placing a tracker on her predecessor, and I to arrange another heart-to-heart with that miserable little turncoat, Hillier. He, as I muttered savagely to Lucas on the way out of Thames House, was in this up to his neck, and if he wanted to save it, he'd tell me every last bloody detail.
I met Hillier in the heart of Canary Wharf. How very appropriate. He fitted right in here – sleek, flashy, and smug. So did his car, far too upmarket for a field officer's salary. I wondered just who else the bastard had been freelancing for.
"Bit mid-life crisis around here, isn't it?" I enquired, when I joined him.
Enjoy it, you moron, I thought, as he sneered in response. You'll be laughing on the other side of your face soon enough.
"It probably appeals more to the younger woman." I nodded in the abashed way I knew he expected, then slipped my gun from my jacket and aimed it straight at his genitals.
This is about the uranium. I know that, you know that. Talk.
The gun barrel seemed to concentrate his mind. He told me quickly enough that Harry had deceived the others by hiding the uranium, and admitted that Ruth and her family had been spirited to an MI-6 safehouse. A quick jab in the groin and the flicking off of the safety catch, and he started to spill the beans about Harry, too.
The crack of a rifle shot stopped him from finishing. I cleaned up in a nearby public toilet. Considering how few brains Stephen Hillier seemed to have possessed, they'd left a hell of a mess on my clothes. But it was a small price to pay; he'd confirmed that that bloody cowboy Libby McCall was the master puppeteer here. The Kerala dialect that Malcolm had detected on the video tied in neatly with Amish Mani, who must be holding Harry. McCall could lead us to their bolt-hole. I used some council toilet paper with all the absorptive power of a lump of granite to wipe the last few drips of blood from my hair, and set off back to the Grid.
When I discovered that Lucas had offered Sarah Caulfield both the uranium and Amish Mani in return for placing a tracker on her superior officer, he very nearly got the full benefit of the rage a bullet had prevented me taking out on Stephen Hillier. I'd just about reached my limit in how far I could go in watching my tongue. Malcolm had ambushed me the instant I'd come in, arguing that since he'd identified the safe-house where Hillier had stashed Ruth's husband and son, we should stage a commando-style rescue. He must have been watching too many episodes of '24' at weekends. I said no; that would be tantamount to signing death warrants for both Harry and Ruth. Still he persisted. Finally I ordered him to put the place under surveillance, told him to get some rest and walked off. Now I had Lucas offering the CIA a stash of uranium, boxed and gift-wrapped. Even Jo looked shocked.
"Harry'll countermand the deal, you know that," she protested.
A smirk – there was no other way of describing it – crossed Lucas's face.
"Yeah, that's the flaw in my plan, but luckily we only cross that bridge once Harry's safe."
You two-faced, lying so-and-so. I met his twinkling eyes. "Double-crossing the CIA liaison officer on almost her first day? I like your style, Lucas."
He smiled the smile of a naughty little boy who'd been expecting a spanking and got a sweet instead. "Think that deserves a coffee. You?"
"Yeah, thanks - " I was interrupted by a bleep from the computer. Caulfield had succeeded in putting a tracker on Libby McCall. Lucas shot a triumphant look at me. Both of us could sense we might just be moving into the finishing straight, so we weren't particularly sympathetic when Malcolm popped up again. The surveillance on the MI-6 safe house seemed to indicate that only the child was there. Why is he alone? What's happened to Ruth's husband? I heard Lucas snap at him to just keep monitoring the place, and was grateful. My nerves were far too stretched for tolerance, and if I'd replied, it would almost certainly have been with a comment that triggered another spat. At the moment, Ruth's family was an unnecessary and troublesome piece of excess baggage. So I kept my eyes on the computer screen as the blue dot of McCall's tracker began to blink and edge slowly across it.
"I'm joining the Alpha intercept team." Lucas snatched up his jacket. I told Jo to co-ordinate the teams and stay in contact, then hurried after him. For the first few minutes we drove in a tense silence, until Lucas asked hesitantly: "What was Ruth Evershed to Harry, Ros?"
"Officially? Senior analyst. Unofficially – God knows. Anything from Juliet to Jane Eyre." I listened to Jo's voice in my earpiece. "Left here, second right."
Obediently, he span the wheel. "There's history between the two of you, isn't there?"
I felt my face burning, and looked out of the window. "Yes. And that's all it is. History. He's slowing. Head for the disused warehouse … there. Turn!"
He responded so quickly that I was flung painfully against the door handle as we swerved across the path of a polished black Mercedes. I jumped to the ground as Libby McCall emerged.
"Where are they?" I demanded.
He looked down at me with a cynically amused expression. "Well, now, little lady, why exactly should I tell you that?"
A screech of tyres announced the arrival of reinforcements. I glanced over my shoulder. As I did so, I glimpsed a flash in one of the warehouse windows, and saw Libby McCall slump to the ground.
"Second floor!" I shouted as Lucas raced towards the building. I checked that McCall was only winged, handed him over to the intercept team, and hared in pursuit.
I heard the two shots as I tore up the last flight of stairs. Lucas had his gun trained on an Asian standing near Harry with his hands raised. Two bodies were sprawled on the floor. Cordite hung heavy on the air, but the only sound came from Ruth's keening wails.
I turned as two more officers arrived at a run.
"Take him downstairs." I pointed at the Indian. "And the bodies. Call an ambulance." As they began to obey, and Lucas went to release Harry, I squatted next to Ruth.
"Ruth. It's all right. It's over." There was a knife lying on the floor near her feet. I picked it up, and she cringed. "It's OK. Let me get these off." I sliced through the plastic bonds around her wrists, but when I tried to help her up, she pushed me away. "Take it easy." I tried again. "I understand."
"You? " There was a whole incredulous speech in that one, sobbing word. I backed off and looked around for help.
"Here." It was Lucas. He jerked his head towards Harry and smiled encouragingly. "Try the boss."
Harry looked old and tired, and I had to admit he didn't smell too good, either, but he managed a smile. "This 'Ros to the Rescue' business is becoming a habit."
I just succeeded in smiling back; tears of sheer relief were almost choking me. "I'd be happy to go cold turkey, Harry."
"Not while I live and breathe." He held the back of the chair for support, but when I went to help him, he shook his head. "Take care of Ruth." We both watched as Lucas helped her gently to the stairs. "They shot her husband." I stared at him in shock, icy cold spreading through me. I barely heard his next words. "Is her son safe? Ros. Is the boy safe?"
Why is he alone? My hands shook as I pulled out my phone and rang Malcolm's number. It was Jo who answered.
"Jo? Jo, where's Malcolm?"
"Over there." Lucas, who had organised Malcolm's retirement party, gestured with his wine glass. He smiled at me. "Hero of the hour."
With an effort, I smiled back. When my shock at the way Malcolm had put his own life on the line dissipated, I had been full of admiration for him, not to mention intense gratitude. Had he not expressly ignored my orders, little Nico might now be dead along with his father. Malcolm had insisted he didn't want a party, but led by Lucas, we'd all gone ahead with one anyway. Jo, whom I had made responsible for taking care of Ruth, had even managed to persuade her to attend, and for Malcolm's sake she was – albeit without enthusiasm – keeping up appearances by talking to Harry, something that she had point-blank refused to do in the week since their release. I could see Harry now in conversation with a solemn-looking man of about my age, who, according to Lucas, was Tom Quinn, Adam's predecessor as Section Chief. He must have been more humorous than he looked, because at that moment Harry threw his head back and laughed at something he'd said.
"At least he looks a bit more cheerful," I murmured to Lucas.
"Yeah." Lucas's own grin, which had been almost permanently fixed on his face since Harry's return, widened. "He'll be fine, Ros."
I wasn't so sure. Lucas needed to believe that. I wanted to believe it, but I was sceptical. I knew how deep Ruth's anger with Harry ran, and how painful that anger was for him. Ruth's reaction was understandable, of course it was, even to an officially proclaimed Emotional Zombie like me. Still, I knew that despite Harry's apparent smooth recovery from his ordeal, it wouldn't be complete until relations between them were back on an even keel.
"Ros?" Lucas offered me the last slice of chocolate cake. I raised an eyebrow.
"Sure you can spare it?"
He laughed. "I'll probably waste away before your very eyes. Just call me Saint Lucas."
He moved away, and I watched Malcolm, who was now chatting to Tom Quinn. Harry wandered over to me.
"Good turn-out," he observed.
I smiled. "He deserves it, all the years he's given." Even as I spoke I remembered the people who couldn't be there. Behind us, Jo was giggling with Lucas about something. I saw Harry's gaze wander to Ruth, who had joined Tom and Malcolm. "She'll come round, Harry. Once she's able to think about it, she'll realise you couldn't have done anything else. It's just the job. Impossible choices. We all have to make them."
He nodded, and gave me a brief hug with one arm. "You know that better than anyone, Rosalind. You've always made the right ones in the end." He looked across the room. "Time for the toast, I think."
It was after the toast, when I had slid, without even noticing it, into my usual 'party' mode of being a lone observer on the fringes of proceedings, that I realised I hadn't seen Malcolm for a while. I asked Lucas, who was cheerfully co-opting a few junior officers into beginning the clear-up, where he was. He gave me an odd look.
"He sneaked off on the QT a few minutes ago, Ros. You know Malcolm, discretion rules. Didn't you say goodbye?"
I glanced around the room. Suddenly there was hardly a familiar face in sight. I'd lost Connie and Ben from my team in the past fortnight. Now Malcolm. We'd clashed more in the last few days than in the last several years. I couldn't just let him go.
I ran down the stairs, the sound of my heels reverberating off the marble floors and walls. As I jumped the last three steps I saw a familiar mackintosh in the distance.
"Malcolm!" He turned as I caught up with him.
"Ros." His eyes crinkled. "Did you want to escort me off the premises?"
I swallowed. "No. I just – I - " What the hell do you want, Myers, you bloody idiot?
I blurted it out. "I wish you weren't going." The expression in his eyes changed. "We need you," I added. "Harry does. Surely he wants you to stay?"
Malcolm smiled. "No, Ros. It's time. When I came into the Service Amstrad was the cutting edge of technology. Harry has you at his side. He couldn't be better served."
I shook my head. "I let Ruth's husband die. And without you her son would be dead too. You were the one who took the decision to save him."
He tutted, and took my hands. "Because I could. You did what you had to, and Harry and Ruth are alive because of it. Stop beating yourself up. I'll tell you what Harry wants. You – your experience, your bravery, even that razor tongue of yours."
I probably couldn't have said it to anyone else. "He wants Ruth, Malcolm, not me."
"One doesn't exclude the other. You're his friend, Ros." He looked over my shoulder. "And talking of your friends, and need …"
Lucas was heading towards us. I spoke hurriedly.
"I didn't mean it. About Harry's poem." I was too embarrassed to look at him. "But if I ever get blown to kingdom come, will you read one for me, Malcolm?"
"No bomb would dare," he said. "But if, God forbid … then yes. God bless, Ros." Before I could say more, he gave me a swift peck on the cheek, turned, and disappeared through the doors.
Lucas cleared his throat. "It's tough losing people," he said quietly. I nodded dumbly. That was the third in less than a month.
"Especially old friends. Makes you feel pretty alone sometimes."
The sudden note of melancholy jerked my head round. I remembered how Malcolm had welcomed him back onto the Grid. With him gone, there were even fewer familiar faces on the Grid for Lucas now than there were for me. We looked at each other for a moment.
"Are you going back upstairs?" I asked at last.
He shook his head. "Night shift's in. Harry's gone. Time to go home."
I swallowed, then plunged in. "I owe you a slice of cake. There's a good patisserie at the City Café."
His face lit up, and he slid his arm through mine. "Who's paying, boss?"
"Tonight? I am." I waited just long enough. "Tomorrow … you will. In one way or the other."
Lucas rolled his eyes. "You're just too generous. What can I say?"
I pushed open the door and gave him my sweetest smile, the one that made even Harry take a step backwards. "Just call me Saint Rosalind," I said, and stepped out into the street.
THE oOoOoOo END