"Hello." He got to his feet. "Dominic Hastings."
Ros shook his extended hand. "Miriam Spencer. This," she turned to Lucas, who had stopped as abruptly as if he had hit a wall on entering the room, "is Liam Newton."
"Pleased to meet you." The courtesies seemed to reassure him. He probably expected a hood over his head and pliers on his nails.He jumped like a startled rabbit as his mobile bleeped, and looked even more alarmed when Ros, with a polite smile, held out her hand.
"I'm afraid security should have removed that from you, Mr Hastings. We'll return it when you leave." He reluctantly surrendered it and she handed it to Ruth. "Have it taken care of please, Eliza. And if you could alert the chief?"
The expression in Ruth's eyes told her that she had translated the words correctly into 'check everything on it'. She nodded and left the room.
"So." Ros smiled. "How can we help you?"
"It's about Alex," Hastings said.
"Alex Pemberton," Ros clarified. "The rower?"
"Yes. Something's wrong; I'm sure of it. I haven't been able to reach him for days."
Lucas leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "Then surely the normal thing to do would be to go to the police?"
Hastings shook his head. "I can't. It will get out."
Lucas raised his eyebrows invitingly at the 'it', but Dominic Hastings declined to bite. "Still, it seems a little bit excessive to bring a missing persons report to us, Mr Hastings. Why come to MI-5?"
Neither of them expected the simple bluntness of his reply.
"Because Alex told me to. If anything happened."
Lucas glanced at her, and Ros stepped in. "Mr Hastings, would you come with us, please?"
She led the way to the lifts. Generally speaking, the interview rooms in Thames House were spartan and intimidating. Ruth had once tentatively suggested to Harry that perhaps they could be made less so, to which he had responded irritably that they weren't running a bloody Lyons Corner House and that most of their interviewees were meant to feel intimidated. However, after several panicked walk-ins had rapidly become walk-outs, he had arranged for a junk room where Ros had once interrogated Lucas to be equipped with a rug, coffee table, and a few comfortable chairs so that it was a little more like a café and a little less like a cell. Ros asked Lucas to bring coffee there. The room had a few features that wouldn't be found in most cafes, including recording devices that a brief reminder to Lucas to 'tell Cal not to forget the sugar' had ensured that Callum would now have activated.
"So, Mr Hastings." Ros settled herself in a chair opposite him and produced her warmest smile. "Shall we start at the beginning? Your full name, date of birth and address, please?"
"Dominic Peter Hastings. 25th of September 1980, and I live at 28 Rochdale Gardens in Richmond, Miss Spencer."
"Miriam will do fine." They both glanced round as the door opened and Lucas backed in with a tray. Harry Pearce followed him in, and took a seat against the wall. He gave Ros a discreet thumbs-up. Lucas poured coffee for all of them, and Ros waited until Hastings had taken a mouthful, noticing, with wry amusement, that he winced at the taste of it.
"Could you explain to us how you're acquainted with Alexander Pemberton?" she asked.
He put the cup down with a slightly incredulous look - partly, Ros thought, at her question, and partly at what the security services were apparently capable of doing to an innocent coffee bean.
"Well yes, but I would have thought – surely it's what's happened to Alex that's important!"
"We don't know if anything has happened to Alex yet," Lucas pointed out.
"And I'm sure you'll appreciate," Ros added smoothly, "that while the Service is immensely grateful for the information it receives, it does need to check sources and reliability out carefully."
"Yes. Of course." Hastings cleared his throat. "Alex and I know each other from Oxford - the Debating Society, actually. After I graduated I set up my own PR agency. Gradually moved into sports management. Alex is one of the sportsmen I represent."
Ros added some sugar to her coffee; he was right, it was putrid.
"I see. So you're colleagues – and friends." She wouldn't let him know they were already aware of exactly what his relationship with the missing rower was.
"No, Alex and I are a couple." Hastings' voice was surprisingly firm. Ros, who had expected at least a wriggle of embarrassment, was impressed. "We have been for several years."
"You live together, then?" Lucas suggested. Like her, he must be remembering Pemberton's cottage and their surprise at how feminine some of the décor had seemed.
Hastings's lips tightened. "Not permanently, no."
"Why not?" Ros enquired.
Dominic Hastings was beginning to look impatient. "Because - look, I came here to give you information, not to undergo the bloody third degree!"
Ros kept the smile on her face, and resisted the temptation to tell him that she was only getting warmed up. "It's just red-tape, sir, procedures that have to be followed. Bear with us."
Hastings sighed. "For the obvious reason. Because Alex's father doesn't approve of his son being gay."
"He's aware of it, then," Lucas observed.
Hastings shot him a withering look. "Of course he is. He created enough fuss about it when he found out while Alex was at Eton."
"You were at Eton too?"
"No, but Alex told me. His father - well …" he trailed off.
"Tried to knock it out of him?" Ros suggested quietly.
Hastings looked uncomfortable. "More or less." He shrugged. "Chassez la nature, elle revient au galop."
"So he doesn't know about you and Alex."
Hastings shook his head vigorously. "God, no. Alex made me swear we'd never tell anyone. He's the archetypal British hero. You know what the press call him – Alexander the Great. Not to mention his female fans … and the bloody Twitterati! Can you imagine their reaction?"
And his father's. Ros glanced across at Harry, whose complexion had deepened to a familiar shade of cranberry. Sir Roger Pemberton hadn't breathed a word about Alex's homosexuality when she had interviewed him. Clearly, keeping secrets was a skill that ran in the family.
"When were you last in contact with Alexander?"
Dominic Hastings thought for a moment. "During the Games," he said at last. "Two days before the closing ceremony."
"Did he seem his usual self?" Ros asked. "Under stress, anxious? Afraid?"
"No. Just very tired. It wasn't only the pressure of competition; he'd had to do so many interviews, TV appearances, press conferences. All the medallists did – everyone wanted a piece of them."
"Then why," Lucas said reasonably, "are you assuming that something was wrong? Might he not just have decided to take himself off for a few days rest?" Hastings shook his head emphatically. "Why so sure?"
"Because it was my birthday two days after the end of the Games. We were planning to go away for the long weekend. Alex would never have missed that."
Lucas's mobile chimed softly into the momentary pause. He answered it, then got up and left the room. Ros waited until the door was closed, and looked towards Harry, who got up and approached them.
"Mr Hastings." He removed a sheet of paper and his fountain pen from his inside pocket. "We need you to sign this." As the younger man scanned it, he added, "Should you reveal anything of this interview to a third party, you render yourself liable to prosecution under the Official Secrets Act."
Dominic looked at him for a moment, and then scribbled a signature. Harry retrieved the form, then sat down in the place Lucas had vacated. "Thank you. Now, you and Alexander Pemberton are intimate. I therefore assume you are – open - with each other." He watched the young man intently; Ros watched him.
"Of course we are." When Harry's expression didn't change, Hastings added with feeling," In a position like ours, you aren't really part of wider society. Not even in these so-called liberal times. You never really fit, not even – well, especially - if you're in a prominent position like Alex. Because you can't be honest – not safely, anyway. We don't even use our regular phones. Public landlines or pay as you go, to avoid hacking." That, Ros thought grimly, would explain why there had been no trace of communication from any 'Dominique' on the iPhone she and Lucas had lifted from Pemberton's cottage. "So yes, Alex and I are open with each other. Completely. Neither of us have anyone else we can safely be open with." He sighed. "I realise that's difficult for people like you to understand."
Actually, you've just described the position of your average MI-5 officer to a T, Ros thought. From Harry's slightly twisted smile, she suspected that he was thinking the same thing.
"So you knew Alex's views and opinions." Another nod. "Mr Hastings, has he ever shown any interest in, or sympathy for, extremist views?"
Dominic Hastings's chiselled jaw dropped open. "Extremist? Wh – what kind of extremist? Fascist … anarchist, what?"
"In this particular case, Islamist," Harry said.
The younger man gawped at him. "Alex? Are you insane, Mr - "
"Farmer," Harry said helpfully. "Giles Farmer."
"And this is the Perilous Realm, I suppose." Abruptly, Hastings got up. "If you are honestly suggesting that Alex Pemberton has any affiliation to Islamic terrorism, then maybe you ought to go and look for other dragons to slay, because that is the most utter, unadulterated crap I have ever heard in my life."
"Sit down, Mr Hastings." Now Ros was on her feet too. He fired a contemptuous look at her and turned on his heel.
"Sit down!" Harry roared. "Now. You leave this building when we allow you to do so and that won't be until you've answered every question to our full satisfaction." He waited until Hastings resumed his seat, face set and eyes still alight with rage. "We have evidence that Alex Pemberton visited Pakistan some years ago. Were you with him? Do you know anything at all about that trip?"
"Why on earth would I set foot in a place like Pakistan?" The disdain dissolved as he met the impassive stares of the two MI-5 officers. If silence could be described as loud, Ros thought, this one would be deafening. Finally, Dominic Hastings cracked under its pressure. "How the hell is this going to help find Alex?"
"That's for us to work out," Ros answered. "Pakistan?"
Hastings picked up his coffee cup, then replaced it, toyed with the spoon, and finally said:
"Sydney, in 2000 - his first Olympics. He'd only just moved into seniors. Didn't get past the heats, not then. He'd just graduated from uni, so after the Games he took some time off, took the long route home through Asia. Malaysia, India …"
"Pakistan?" Ros prompted again.
"Yeah. I remember him telling me he did the pukka colonial bit … Lahore, Saiful Muluk, the Khyber Pass." Hastings shook his head as her eyes narrowed. "Look, I don't know what you're getting at, but you're about as far off the wall as you could be. Alex has no time for all that bullshit." Again his anger flared. "What the hell do you suspect him of? For God's sake, your average Islamic nutcase would have people like us down there in the dust with the dogs! Do you even know what the penalty for homosexuality is out there?" He shook his head. "God, this is crazy. You can't possibly believe he's mixed up with them!"
"His involvement needn't necessarily be voluntary," Ros said quietly.
"You mean – you think – " He paled as the shock took hold. "God, surely not! I never even considered them – when I heard about the burglary I was afraid he'd been kidnapped to extort money, but … no, not this, not spies and – and James Bond cloak and dagger!"
"This is not James Bond, Mr Hastings." Harry's eyes were hard. "This is a possible threat to national security we're talking about. Terrorism."
Just then, the door clicked open and Lucas beckoned to Ros. She murmured an apology and joined him.
"Khalida got news from Amnesty," he said. "Lev Kukushkin was killed in a hit-and-run in Minsk last week."
Shit. How bloody convenient. Ros bit her lip. That neatly confirmed Lidiya Akayeva's story. So the uranium's really here.
"And Ruth's I.D'd that bloke tailing Khalida. Low-level errand-runner, Samir Al-Khudri. He's done time for fomenting religious hatred."
"Anything suspicious from Customs?"
He shook his head. "But Callum's got news from Chen's bug. Seems Sir Roger's got a lunch date tomorrow, and he was very cryptic on the phone. No names."
"Do we know where?"
"Yep." Lucas told her. Ros leaned back into the room and called Harry. When she had updated him, Harry thought for a moment.
"Get Ruth to make a reservation for two. Then rattle Customs and Excise's cage, and tell them I'm not bloody well interested in contraband Louis Vuitton or Korans stuffed with qat." Lucas nodded and went smartly off down the corridor.
"He's holding back," Harry said tersely, jerking his thumb at the door. "About that Pakistan trip."
Ros nodded her agreement. Up until the mention of Pakistan, Dominic had been perfectly in control of himself, smooth and convincing. Only then had he become both unsettled and angry, and his anger had been edged with anxiety.
Harry glanced at his watch. "I'm going to see if Callum's dragged any secrets out of his phone. Either way, I want a tracker on it before you return it to him. I'm going to call the Home Secretary for clearance, then start setting up surveillance of the Brixton mosque from tomorrow. I want eyeball on that place. Push him, Ros." A smile flickered. "Turn on the charm."
Ros nodded grimly, and returned to the interview room. Dominic Hastings was already on his feet; he seemed to think the meeting was over. Sorry to disappoint you, old chap. Ros resumed her seat and invited him to do the same.
"I really don't have any more information to give you." There was a slight petulance to Hastings's voice now.
Ros favoured him with the smile that Lucas always claimed reminded him of a hungry wolf in a David Attenborough documentary. "Come, Mr Hastings, I don't think that's true, is it?"
He bristled. "Are you accusing me of lying?"
"No," Ros said mildly, "I'm accusing you of not telling me everything you know about Alex Pemberton and Pakistan." When he didn't answer, she leaned towards him and let her voice harden. "No-one, however prominent, and however much of a National Treasure they may be, urges their partner to go to MI-5 rather than the police if they go AWOL. No-one entirely innocent, that is. Whatever it is you aren't telling me, Alex Pemberton knew that it could put him at risk from somebody, and he also knew the police would be about as much use in protecting him as a salwar kameez in a nudist colony." Dominic Hastings's mouth remained tight shut, and Ros felt her temper inching closer to breaking point. She didn't have time to sit here playing cat and mouse. She shoved back her chair with a deliberately loud screech, got up, and glared down at him.
"Mr Hastings, I don't have time to waste. If you don't want to tell me what I need to know, you can walk out of here - right now. You may then consider yourself responsible for whatever may happen to Alex Pemberton, because if he is in danger, by the time the police investigate his disappearance it will almost certainly be far too late to help him." She saw that register, and pressed home her advantage. "That will be your personal responsibility. If your failure to co-operate with us leads to the committing of an act of terrorism on British soil that you could have helped to prevent, then I will make it my personal pleasure, as well as my professional duty, to ensure that your criminal responsibility for that puts you in court. I will leave you to consider those alternatives in private. " She turned abruptly for the door.
"You can't just leave me stewing in here!" Hastings erupted, leaping to his feet.
"I'm afraid I can," Ros said. "In this building, PACE and all its attendant niceties are rather like your mobile phone, Mr Hastings – they don't get past security. And I assume you didn't tweet your family and friends to tell them that you'd be dropping in?"
"You bitch," Dominic Hastings snarled. His elegant composure was fast deserting him.
Ros rolled her eyes. "Do try something more original, Mr Hastings. I can have some more of our delicious coffee brought to you? Bit short on reading matter, I'm afraid." She tapped her code into the keypad by the door. "Although I can offer you your letters to Alex – you might fancy a re-read?"
Hastings turned white. "You've got them?"
"Oh, yes." Ros smiled amiably. "Charmingly written. Deserve a wider audience, wouldn't you say?" The clunk of the locks opening added a nicely menacing coda to her words.
"Wait! Wait." Hastings took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed fastidiously along his hairline, the first mildly effeminate gesture Ros had seen from him. "Alex told me in confidence." Ros waited impassively. "If his father … I – look, you can't share this. … bruit it around."
"This is the security service, Mr Hastings, not your Facebook page." Ros closed the door again, resumed her seat, and folded her arms. "Talk."
An hour later, she accompanied a lightly perspiring Dominic Hastings to the main entrance, returned his mobile phone, invisibly doctored by Callum Reed, and reminded him with a menacing courtesy of his obligations under the Official Secrets Act. Then she unwisely sprinted up the stairs to the Grid.
She jammed the pods for a few seconds to give her time to catch her breath, then followed Chen's beckoning wave to the conference room. Harry and Ruth were scrutinising something on Callum's laptop, and Lucas and Khalida were busy on two separate telephones. Everyone looked up expectantly as she came in.
"So?" Harry demanded.
Ros, whose lungs had not appreciated her thoughtlessly excited dash up two flights of stairs, took the chair that Lucas pulled out for her, and addressed Callum.
"Those pictures you found on his laptop, the party ones." The technician nodded. "According to Hastings, Pemberton fell in with some of the golden youth of Lahore when he was on a round the world tramp after the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Politicians' kids, rich businessmen's' offspring … anyway, they took him up to the North-West frontier, the Khyber Pass. All of them had money to throw around, and none of them were too worried about the strictures of Allah spoiling their fun." She paused for a moment and pretended she hadn't seen Harry's sharp glance of concern at her breathlessness.
"Fun?" Ruth enquired.
"Hashish, the local hooch - " Ros paused again.
" - and the local girls?" from Khalida.
Ros nodded. "And boys."
"Oh, shit." Callum swivelled around in his chair and almost knocked Harry off his feet. "Don't tell me … he didn't?"
"Yup." Ros sighed. "Only one of them got cold feet at the last minute and did a runner straight into the welcoming arms of the local imam. Who reported it to the plods. "
"He got arrested?" Ruth frowned. "Surely that would have come to the ears of the security services, with his father being so prominent?"
Ros shrugged. "Maybe not. Sir Roger didn't have so much clout then, still on his way up. It was a year before the 11th of September; we didn't have the area under 24-hour surveillance as we do now." She glanced at Harry. "Anyway, Hastings says that one of the bright young things Pemberton was travelling with got his cousin to intervene and trade him off the hook."
"Do we know his cousin?" Chen Liu enquired.
"Oh yes," Ros said wearily. "Mamnoon Hamid." The link.
Both Lucas and Callum swore, simultaneously, but in different languages. Khalida's face turned to stone, and Harry's the colour of a ripe tomato. MI-5 had strongly suspected the Yorkshire-born businessman of being the money-man behind the July 2005 London bombings, but to their fury he had been acquitted when evidence garnered from phone taps was ruled inadmissible. Since then, he had shuttled busily between London and Lahore, plump, prosperous, and potentially lethal.
"So you think they've had a hold over Pemberton for a decade?" Lucas's voice always became more gravelly still when he was angry.
"Would they bother, for that long?" Chen asked.
"The Soviets kept sleepers buried for twice that amount of time," Ruth pointed out. "With a Daddy rising fast through the Establishment, he'd be a prize worth keeping safe until the time was ripe." She looked at Ros. "The Bradford hit and run."
Khalida and Chen – too young to remember – looked blank. So did Lucas, who would have been behind bars in Russia at the time. Ruth swiftly explained: a young Pakistani boy killed by a car driven by drunken skinheads, and bloody clashes between the English and Asian communities, enthusiastically whipped up by two young men just starting out on their journey to radicalism – Mamnoon Hamid and Asif Iqbal Mahmood.
"Right." Harry broke the silence. "Tomorrow's Friday – we start surveillance on that bloody mosque. Callum, make sure the obs unit's ready. I want you and Chen in position first thing tomorrow. Khalida, you'll attend prayers as agreed."
Ros started. Agreed by whom? "Harry, no. Aideed or Al-Khudri could recognise her."
"I will attend in full niqab, Ros." Khalida smiled. "And I will be kept in my humble, second-rate place with the other ladies. It is perfectly safe."
"We need eyes in there, Ros." Harry's look was sympathetic, but his tone unyielding. Ros bit her lip, but she said no more. "Ruth, I want to know Hamid's current whereabouts, and a recap of his every bloody move for the last four weeks. Fast."
"There's something about this that doesn't make sense," Lucas said slowly, as people scattered. "Why did Sir Roger tell Towers that Alex had 'disappeared' but then play it down so much to the police?"
"He knows about Alex's homosexuality," Harry said. "Maybe about that Pakistan business, too. Afraid of what they might turn up? Fear of leaks? Even the bloody police 'tweet' these days."
"Yeah …" Lucas still sounded unconvinced. "But he told Towers."
"That was safe," Harry snapped. "Old Boys Network. Towers would have kept shtum with us too, if we hadn't been standing on his bloody Axminster at the time."
Lucas shrugged. "But surely Sir Roger would want something done to find him. All right, so Alex is gay and he finds that unacceptable, but it doesn't carry the leper's mark any longer."
"It does for men like him," Ros interjected wryly. "Trust me, Lucas."
"OK." Lucas shook his head. "But still, no father would care so little about his child, whatever he's done - "
"Wouldn't he," Ros murmured. Harry glanced sharply at her.
"We'll see about Sir Roger tomorrow. Incidentally, I'll want a bug – discreet and with damned good sound reception. Get Callum on it."
When Lucas had gone, he spoke gently. "Ros, he didn't mean - "
"I know." Ros cut him off instantly. "Doesn't matter." She was livid with herself. Through contacts, Harry provided her with the only news she ever got about her father, but it was tacitly agreed that her estrangement from Jocelyn Myers was never otherwise mentioned on the Grid. And she had fussed about Khalida. Get a sodding grip, Myers. "What time's lunch tomorrow?"
She saw Harry hesitate. "Ros, you can't do this one. After the interview, Pemberton would recognise you. You and Lucas will be on obs. Ruth will go with me."
Shit. She couldn't argue that, but she could make at least one protest.
"Ruth's not a field officer," she objected.
"No, but she'll be convincing." Harry's eyes crinkled. "I'm trying to pass unnoticed. A romantic tete a tete with Lucas might not do the trick."
Ros acknowledged defeat with a smile that even she could feel was brittle. Harry patted her shoulder affectionately. "You're a bit pale. Chest hurting?" Mutely, she shook her head. "Good. Don't worry, there's life in the old dog yet, Ros. We'll do it right." He strode out.
She followed him and stopped to let Callum and Chen pass. Their heads were bent – inevitably – over a tablet screen, and neither raised their eyes. Harry was deep in conversation with Ruth. Ros sought out Lucas, and saw him and Khalida, who was usually fairly reticent with her colleagues, laughing together by the coffee machine.
Right, well … Officers were beginning to drift homewards, and Ros suddenly realised that incredibly, there was nothing to keep her either. Her colleagues clearly didn't need her supervision. For the first time she could remember, she apparently wasn't needed in the one place where she always had been.
Lucas caught her at the pods. "Ros! Ros – I thought we could go for a drink?"
"Thanks, I'd rather just go home tonight." They rarely told each other lies - neither of us have anyone else we can safely be open with – and Lucas's expression changed as he recognised that she was doing so.
"Ros? What have I done?"
Nothing. Except remind me of something I've spent five years trying to forget. She shook her head. "I'm just tired. See you tomorrow."
She hurried off, not wanting to see his hurt expression, and drove out of the garage far too fast. Half a mile down the Embankment a traffic jam forced her to slow to a crawl. Police were waving cars past an accident, recent by the look of it. The victim was being stretchered into an ambulance.
The relentlessly swirling blue lights catching the mop of blond hair caught her attention. Ros felt suddenly cold as she slid down her window, and it wasn't just because of the mist that drifted in. She leaned out, took a closer look, and recognised Dominic Hastings.
Thank you for reading. Please review! :)