3. London, early May 2011.
I managed to stay undiscovered for almost three weeks, helped in no small part by the royal wedding. In the lead-up to that all of the British security services were, understandably, too busy to worry about another CIA employee slipping into town, even if it was a Deputy Director with a long history of delving into Russian affairs, so I could start digging around in peace. For all that, I didn't get very far. There were plenty of rumours doing the rounds, each one as contradictory as the next, but no-one had anything concrete. On the day of the wedding itself I, like everyone else, ended up watching it, in my case on the TV in my hotel room, because there was absolutely nothing else to do, although I did go out afterwards to join the crowds and get some of the atmosphere, even managing to catch a glimpse of the happy couple as they drove Charles' Lotus down The Mall. You have to give it to the Brits, they really know how to do this pomp and circumstance thing! It all went off without a hitch although Gian and my eldest, Paige, were seriously ticked off that I was here and they weren't, something I didn't hear the end of for a few days, until the news broke about Bin Laden, giving everyone something else to talk about. That brought me another few days, then the inevitable finally happened and I got an text that was as much an order as an invitation.
I got to the pub first. It was one of those traditional old places, all mullioned windows, tiled floors, timber and brass fittings, that would normally draw in the tourists like flies to a carcass but, at this hour of the morning, it was only lightly populated, for which I was grateful. Picking up a mineral water to nurse while I waited, I silently reviewed what I had learned over the past few weeks. That didn't take long when it came to the rumoured deal: that was still all whispers on the wind about a bilateral trade agreement with final negotiations and signing-off due to happen any day. A Russian-registered private jet, masquerading as a diplomatic flight, had been noted arriving at RAF Brize Norton not long since but no-one knew who the passengers had been, and at about the same time FSB activity around town had increased, as had the number of personnel they had stationed at their office. The office that wasn't supposed to exist, that would be. To be honest, I wasn't overly worried: if it was only a trade deal, and there had been absolutely no rumours of it being anything else, then there probably wasn't too much to be concerned about, it would only be making official what was already happening anyway, whether Washington liked it or not. And it wasn't like the same thing wasn't happening between businesses in Russia and the US… It looked like being a storm in a very British tea-cup.
The other stuff I had learned had related to my old Berlin buddy. The news had swept through the international intelligence community like a wild-fire a couple of months ago, of course: the legendary Harry Pearce, fearsome head of counter-intelligence for MI5, being stood down pending an enquiry was always going to get the gossips going but after the initial flare-up there had been nothing but speculation. As ever, the spooks in this country had kept their mouths tightly shut when it came to one of their own but since arriving here I'd heard various rumours, many of them revolving around the word "treason" mixed in with China, a subordinate going bad and a woman. Now, I've known the man for over thirty years, since we first met in Cologne in 1980, and no matter how much of a maverick he was (and still is) I knew damned well that he would never betray his country. Ever. He might burn assets, manipulate his colleagues and friends as required and cheat on his wife (although, to be fair, he had taken that lesson particularly to heart, albeit too late, after Jane took the kids and walked out) but treason was one line in the sand that he would die for rather than cross, whether a personal relationship was involved or not. So if what he had done looked like treason I would guarantee, one-hundred percent, that it wasn't: there would be something else behind it that explained it all. As I'm sure this witch-hunt of an enquiry would find out. I had no illusions on what the real score was on that front: both he and I had made a lot of powerful enemies over our time in the service and somehow he had inadvertently given his an opportunity to bring him down. Well, if I knew old Hal, they would be the ones to ultimately fail.
While I was thinking of the Devil he walked into the bar. I spotted him, looking dour, through the large windows and the grin started as he came through the door, answered by his familiar sunny smile once he saw me from across the room. Slightly conspiratorial, as ever: Christ, I'd lost count long since of the number of times we'd met up in bars in Berlin, London (especially while I'd been stationed here for those years during the 1990s – no girl in this city had been safe from us over that period!) and Washington prior to going out and getting up to no good, either on a private or professional front! Every time it was like this, though – goofy grins and laughter bubbling up as we remembered the most scurrilous of our escapades – and this occasion was no different. I felt my grin get bigger as he approached and got the corresponding twinkle out of his eyes; getting in first, I gave our ancient and revered traditional greeting.
"You feeling too British for a hug?"
"Too American for a hand-shake?" he countered, quick as a flash, and we both laughed before shaking hands and then exchanging a brief hug. For someone who comes across as very stiff, formal and extremely English on first meeting, to say nothing of how his reputation terrifies lesser mortals, he is actually a very warm and loyal person if he decides to accept you as a friend and the warmth was there that day as he added a gently facetious, "My goodness. Diplomacy in action!"
We stood back and inspected each other for a moment, searching for whatever ravages time and tide might have left on each other over the past few years. For someone of our age who wouldn't be seen dead within a country mile of a gym or anything else resembling a fitness centre, Harry was still in reasonable condition and appeared essentially unchanged, albeit older. He had put on a little weight since we had last actually seen each other, but then so had I before I lost it again trying to keep up with both my wife's fitness routine and a young daughter, and he was finally starting to go grey but I wasn't about to call him on that, not when I'd been completely grey for years. I still had more hair than him, though! He broke the train of my thoughts with a quiet, genuine,
"You look well, Jim."
"Well, younger wife… Gian is thirty-nine. I see her talking to guys her own age, next thing you know I'm on something called an elliptical trainer!" A mildly horrified expression crossed his familiar features and we both laughed again at the things we men sometimes do for the sake of our ladies. "Now I know it's early but I'm damned if I'm going to toast our reunion with pub coffee." I glanced across to get the bar-tender's attention and asked a question to which I already knew the answer. "Single malt?"
"With water." Sending one of his innocent expressions my direction he added, "As a concession to the youth of the hour."
Oh man, his sense of humour was still intact! I couldn't help another broad grin splitting my face as I laughed and shook my head at him, admitting,
"I've missed that shit!" No-one else I'd ever met had quite the turn of phrase and perfect delivery that he did – it was one of the great pleasures of sharing a casual conversation in a bar with him. Turning to the barman I added, "And a vodka and tonic, on the tab," before downing the last of the mineral water. I didn't miss the expression on his face as I did so, though: measured, calculating and something else that might have been tension. Not a mix that usually occurred between us, apart from after one certain incident in Berlin in 1984 which had left us avoiding each other for months, until we had both simmered down and circumstances had forced us together again. After a couple of good drinking sessions in some of the sleazier dives of that city we had regained an even keel and it had been that way ever since. He eventually said, quietly but with that unidentified note also present in his voice now,
"So, I was surprised to hear you were in London."
I carefully avoided his eyes for a moment while I considered my response before glancing over and asking, keeping my voice light,
"Has the interrogation begun already?" His response was instant and equally light.
"Not at all, I'm just feeling slighted that you didn't look me up." I grinned at him but my feeling of unease was growing. Something was amiss here but I was damned if I could put my finger on it. I might have to do some fishing of my own.
"Ah, we're still buddies, Hal." Standing up and picking up my fresh drink from the bar I added, "Shall we?" and we headed towards a table away from the bar. Best to be somewhere separate from where any other arriving patrons could hear us. As we sat down I admitted, honestly, "Langley just doesn't want our hands in each other's pockets any more." Harry took his phone out, checked something on the screen and then tossed it on the table as I continued both unofficial and official fishing. "The Middle East is turning itself inside-out. My bosses think you guys are too close to the action."
He didn't bite, of course, merely gave a dismissive,
"That's ridiculous," and took a sip of his whiskey, mind clearly elsewhere, so I thought I'd needle a bit more.
"Yeah, maybe, but Tripoli to London is only a three-hour flight."
His response was a rather old-fashioned look but again he didn't take the bait, instead swinging the hook back my direction by asking again, politely but rather abruptly,
"So what brings you to London?"
Two could play at that game. My reply was equally blunt.
"I'm keeping an eye on your deal with the Russians, that's all. What do you think?"
That did get a reaction. Understated but the fact that I picked up his surprise at all was indicative of his state of mind. Harry Pearce had a legendary poker-face so a visible reaction proved that the man was worried about something and it looked like this deal might have something to do with it, although I wasn't remotely convinced that the issue actually had anything to do with the public political game that was going on. Both his voice and his expression were disconcerted, to say the least, when he answered.
"How did you find out about that?"
No way was I admitting to any of that, not even for an old friend and sparring partner like Hal, so I shook my head and glanced sideways at him as I laughed gently.
"I'll pass on that one, Mr Quizmaster." There was silence for a moment until I added carefully, "Yeah, I don't know how much you know about that one, Harry, but if that thing goes through, you guys are going to be more of a poodle to Moscow than you ever were to us."
He quirked an ironic eyebrow at me in that characteristic way of his.
"So what's it to Uncle Sam? I thought he wanted out of this relationship."
"Well, it doesn't mean he wants you to start seeing other people. It's going to knock the whole thing off balance."
A slightly sarcastic,
"Have the President call the Prime Minister," was the only answer I got to that one. He was definitely not concentrating on the politics, there was something else about the whole issue that was distracting him. Normally we could spend hours chewing the fat on subjects like this but not today.
"He will, when the time's right." We exchanged hard looks for a moment before I chose to back off a little. "Right now we're hoping your government is going to come to its senses on its own. We don't want to play the bully-boys. Well, not this time, anyway." He didn't react to that, either, apart from the continued expressionless stare, so I smiled again, sat back and added, "Now, why don't you stop flirting, introduce me to the monkey you've got on your back," before taking another pull at my vodka. It was a bit of a stab in the dark but what came next was the last thing I expected. Still unblinking, he said two words.
It took all my self control to not choke on my drink and the creeping sensation of cold that made itself known in the pit of my stomach wasn't due to the ice in my glass. Sweet fucking Jesus, what had brought the subject of that frozen, porcelain bitch back out of the depths of the past? Knowing that she was the one subject Hal and I saw completely differently I said in disbelief,
"Now that is a blast from the past.'
What came next was even more of a shock and I couldn't help a stunned expression crossing my face.
"That is what I am keen to ascertain."
Now I really couldn't believe my ears. What the hell was going on here? This wasn't just an insinuation of something, it was almost an accusation and I didn't like the implications so I gave a sharp,
"Have you had recent contact with her?"
What? Where did that come from? Absolutely none of this was making sense but the cold was clawing its way out of my guts and into my veins now.
"We burned her file in '84," I reminded him, not so gently.
The quirk of the eyebrow again, combined with a challenging look.
"And you were none too pleased."
I knew what that was about, alright. I hadn't been pleased, for good reason: Elena had been a damned fine asset once we'd turned her but I'd never completely trusted her – her intel was almost too consistently good to be true and I always had the feeling that there was something off about her – and she'd proven to be nothing but trouble at the end, although he'd had more than a hand in that, too. But she had been feeding me good information relating to a number of black ops I was running and having to burn her when we did had destroyed those operations and put several of my assets in a very dangerous situation so I'd been justified in being seriously ticked off. I'd thought that then and still thought it now. Well, if he was going to take that attitude then so would I. I was surprised by how stung I was at his implication that I might have gone behind his back, which only served to sharpen my words even more.
"I don't recall there being much of a consultation process but I wouldn't go back on it and hey, it wasn't me that had the 'connection' to her."
As soon as the comment was out of my mouth I knew it was going too far and gave a strained smile to try to mitigate the damage but, strangely, it didn't really seem to have affected him very much. Instead, that unidentifiable expression was in his eyes now as he gazed at me over his glass. I believe that was the first moment I realised exactly how much whatever it was had rattled him. Harry was always imperturbable, absolutely nothing ever fazed him. Not now, though. Maybe it was just the effect of whatever had happened on top of the enquiry and everything that had gone before but, for the first time in my life, I thought I saw a glimpse of desperation in his dark eyes. He swallowed another mouthful of the whiskey and put his glass down, dropping his combative gaze at the same time.
"I have to go."
There was sadness there on his face when he looked up at me again. My disquiet and unrest was escalating at a rate of knots so I said, already regretting my unwarranted snipe at that honey-trap that had gone so spectacularly wrong and hurt him so deeply in the process,
"Harry." We gazed at each other for a long moment, both considering what had just happened. "I really do still think of us as friends, you know."
"I know." There was a flash of regret along with the sadness as we looked at each other before he suddenly smiled again and the old Hal was back, along with the conspiratorial tone of voice. He leaned forward and said confidentially, "You shaved two years off your wife's age. Gianna is 41. You still trying to impress me, James?"
We grinned at each other, albeit hollowly, and he picked up his phone, got to his feet, turned and walked away without another word. Watching him go, my smile faded and I picked up my drink again while I considered our odd little meeting and tried to convince myself that my gut feeling was wrong, although I knew it wasn't. He was in trouble and it was something to do with that infernal damned red-head. After he left and the shock had worn off a little I realised something else: that he had been fishing as hard as I had been, or possibly harder. But why? Why, after over a quarter of a century, was he doubting that I had actually burned Elena, and why now? If I did nothing else, I was going to have to get to the bottom of this.
My brain was going ninety to the dozen on the way back to Grosvenor Square. For want of anything more concrete, I decided to do some checks on the Gavriks, update my files on them. I'd let my observations on that pair slip over the past decade: Ilya had come out of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a filthy-rich oligarch, mostly involved in petrochemicals but with fingers in many other pies as well. It hadn't been entirely his own doing, of course – he had friends in very high places, especially these days – but, to give him his due, a lot of it had been his own efforts. Utilising all the dirt he had gathered during his time in the KGB, as well as the contacts, of course. Elena had stayed in the background, playing the dutiful wife, notable only for her ability to spend money on designer clothes, shoes and jewellery, although apparently she was also the perfect business partner in that she was a renowned hostess and patron of the arts. So presumably she had done her bit for the business as well. I could guess how – she had a devastating charm when she chose to exercise it and hosting exclusive soirees and dinners gave her the perfect opportunity. The charm was how she had snared Harry – in fact, I used to stir him up at the time by asking if he was sure he had actually recruited her or if it was the other way around – but what he didn't know was that she had tried the same trick on me when I had first met her, just before Hal arrived in Berlin, except I'd given her short shrift. Not that that had stopped her continuing to play her manipulative little games at any opportunity.
Anyway, since 9/11 my – everyone's – attention had been diverted elsewhere so it was probably past time that those old files of mine were updated. As soon as I walked through the door of my temporary office I had the team start working on the update while I extracted my own records from the depths of the intranet as well as calling Gian and asking her to send me a specific thumb drive from the stash in our safe. That woman is magnificent: understands intuitively when not to ask questions and cheerfully goes along with such obscure requests, knowing it's for the greater good. I sighed as I hung up the call: why hadn't I met her 20 years earlier than I had? Although if I had she would have still been in junior high school so maybe fate had the right idea after all, waiting until we were both at that conference in Geneva…
My ruminations were interrupted by the office door swinging open and my temporary analyst breezed in without so much as a knock. That was one thing about Hal that I'd always found funny in past years: he absolutely loathed people entering his office without knocking and made no bones about making that fact known to any unfortunate who did it. I knew it was because of the amount of incredibly sensitive information he and I usually had on our desk or computer but it had always made him seem a little stuffy and pompous...until the last few years when the habit had seemed to become universal among the junior echelons of my staff and had begun to irritate me equally as much. The first time I caught myself roaring at someone for not knocking I'd almost laughed, but after the fourth or fifth time I realised he and I were just becoming grumpy old men together!
Anyway, in this case the analyst – Brontee, that was her name, Brontee Sorenson from somewhere in small-town Minnesota, I suddenly remembered – got away with it because of the intel she brought with her. It seemed that our old friend Ilya Gavrik had indeed gone up in the world and, for the past couple of years, had been the Minister of International Development for the Kremlin. This was a plum job apparently created for him as some sort of thanks by the most powerful of his friends, his former mentee from Dresden, one Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. How had that one slipped by me? And the son, Aleksandr Illyich, was now on an upwards trajectory through the ranks of the FSB, although rumour had it that he was getting there because of Daddy's influence and was actually more trouble than he was worth: over-indulged and full of himself without any reason to be, like so many of his generation. I took that on board to consider later because of even more interest was the most recent news: both Ilya Andreivitch and Elena Platonovna had quietly vanished from their luxurious Moscow enclave ten days ago. Now, was that a coincidence or was that a 'coincidence'? That the Gavriks went dark at the same time as the mysterious diplomatic flight had arrived at Brize Norton, the FSB had started buzzing around town like so many demented hornets and Harry Pearce suddenly brought up Elena after 27 years? I thought not but surely he couldn't be sweating blood over their presence in London? It was hardly the first time they had slipped in and out of town, only before it had been very quick, private visits, to do with Kaspgaz, one of Ilya's businesses. And, presumably, to allow Elena to run amok in Harrods and the designer boutiques in the fashionable areas of town. Surely those visits hadn't gone un-noticed? Perhaps they had…
Dismissing the girl with thanks I turned to staring out the window of the office at the quaint, tree lined street below, humming with pedestrians and black cabs, letting the information percolate through my brain for a few minutes. One of the last things Brontee had mentioned was that there was some sort of official reception on tonight at Bannon Hall, a former stately home that was now a conference and banqueting centre. The reception was both highly exclusive and involved many of the so-called 'great and good' from both Britain and, to my total lack of surprise by now, Russia. It was too late for me to wheedle my way in to play fly-on-the-wall but surely… I made a call to another extension in the building and hung up after a few minutes, feeling more sanguine. Of course we hadn't let this one slip under the radar: we had a couple of our own people inside, working as wait-staff, so I'd get the feedback I wanted. I'd also asked for some eyes outside, watching for the Gavriks (whom I was certain were going to be among the guests of honour) and ready to follow them when they left. I wanted to know where they were staying and this seemed the quickest way to achieve that particular objective.
Much as I wanted to be there, somewhere, it wouldn't be a good idea – I had a sneaking suspicion MI5, and probably MI6, would be crawling all over the place, as well as the FSB, so couldn't risk being spotted – so I ended up loading all the files I currently had, old and new, onto my laptop and heading back to the hotel to work on them there. James Junior distracted me with a phone call for a while, detailing his latest sporting achievements (his sister was the academic of that pair, despite them both having the same amount of brains), but even so my thoughts were elsewhere, flickering between now and what might be going on at the reception and the past, with long-dormant memories from my years in Berlin, often working on joint operations with Harry and other agents from Six, rising up like ghosts as I methodically worked through the files in something approaching chronological order.
Sasha exercised my mind for some time: that child, whose very existence had caused so much strife in Berlin during the first half of the eighties, was now a grown man, with a very hot, uncontrollable temper, from all reports. Not unlike Harry at the same age, except he always knew how to channel his temper. Well, most of the time. Thank God the kid wasn't here in town because he would just make the situation worse by his very presence.
Another phone call came later, as I was closing everything down for the evening, tired from reliving the past and bashing my brains out against the present. The Gavriks had indeed been there, as had the British Home Secretary, William Towers, half the FSB agents in town, Sir Harry Pearce and most of his immediate team. Even so, there had been an assassination attempt on Ilya; quick action from Harry and his team had prevented the attempt from being successful and they had terminated the assassin. The Gavriks had been hastily bundled out and into an official car, which had now conveniently led my people to the hotel in which they were staying. All in all, an interesting evening. Instead of going to bed, I went out onto my tiny balcony and spent some time in the surprisingly balmy evening, breathing in the air and the view of the night city. It didn't help. Still nothing made sense. Eventually I did give up, went for a satisfyingly long soak in the shower and hit the sack, hoping things would look better in the morning.
I should be so lucky.