Meet Mr Harold Palmer
Harry got back from his meeting with the Home Secretary looking hot and annoyed.
"Meeting room!" he barked across the Grid, glowering at no-one in particular.
His tone of voice brooked no opposition and they all filed into the room briskly. By the time they sat down Harry had removed his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair.
"I know that we're rather busy with that new AQ cell we've identified, but the Home Secretary wishes us to pay attention to another matter as well. Apparently the Russians are sniffing around our biggest defence contractor, UK Defence Electronics."
Ruth frowned. "Isn't that company busy improving all the electronics on our guided missiles?"
Harry nodded. "And on most of our fighter planes. Apparently this man," he handed a photo over to be distributed, "Sergei Fedorov, has been tasked by the Russians to steal this new technology. Yes, Ruth," he said wearily, noticing that she was bursting to say something.
"Fedorov is rumoured to have links to the Russian mafia. He's been used as a type of deniable fixer by the Russian government in the past. He owns one of the swanky hotels here in London, incidentally."
"Right," Harry agreed. "So, Alec, find me a way to get to Mr Fedorov and protect our military technology secrets."
The Section Chief barely had time to nod before Harry was out of the room and into his office, closing his door behind him.
Beth and Dimitri glanced at each other. Things had been tense on the Grid since the conclusion of the Inquiry into Harry. It seemed as though Harry and Ruth did not quite know how to act around each other after everything that had happened. When work did not dictate that they had to speak to each other, Harry seemed to avoid being in Ruth's presence as much as possible. Ruth, on the other hand, hadn't made any attempt to clear the air, and contented herself to looking after him sadly each time he walked away from her.
- 0 -
Two days later
"So," Harry said as he sat down, "I understand you have a proposal to solve the Russian problem."
"Yeah," Alec responded. "Fedorov's MO is to identify a senior man in the company he's interested in, find a weak spot and exploit that to get the information he wants. So we propose to hand him such a person on a plate. We plant someone in the company that would meet his criteria, and then use that person to feed him false information."
Harry nodded slowly, idly wondering why none of the other team members would look him in the eye.
"That could work. Do we have a candidate that we can feed him?"
"We do," Alec said and hit the remote. "Harold Palmer."
Silence descended as Harry stared at his own face on the screen.
He looked around the table, but none of his officers dared meet his eye. Ruth, in particular, looked anywhere but at him, and he couldn't understand why she seemed so excessively uncomfortable about this.
"If this is an attempt at humour, it has missed the mark by some distance," he finally offered.
"Sorry. It's not. There's no-one else available, Harry. Dimitri, Beth and I are tied up with the AQ cell."
Harry regarded 'Harold Palmer' mournfully. "Fine. I expect that next you're going to tell me I'll have to spend a lot of time in casinos from now on."
"Actually, no," Alec replied. "That will take too long. We've decided to give Harold a more immediate weakness."
Ruth seemed to sink even deeper into her chair and fiddled with the paper in front of her.
Alec grinned at Harry. "It seems our Mr Palmer is having a torrid affair with his PA," he paused dramatically before hitting the remote again with a flourish, "Ruth Emmerson."
Beth wished that she had a camera to capture the expression on Harry's face for posterity. Shocked. Stunned. Incredulous. Flummoxed, she decided in the end. Ruth, on the other hand, looked like she wanted to flee and was not making eye contact with anyone.
"With Ruth?" Harry managed to squeak after an eternity. He dared a darting look in her direction before looking away again hurriedly.
His Section Chief was clearly enjoying the boss' discomfort. "Yes. You're going to a Defence Contractor conference tomorrow, and Fedorov will be there. We know that he has a special room in his hotel, which he has bugged, that he offers to people such as Harold. So you need to convince him to invite you to use it for a, erm, liaison with your PA."
Once again a long silence ensued as Harry tried to process the developments. Suddenly he blanched.
"But… If the hotel room is bugged, he'll expect us to…" He petered out feebly.
Alec tried to look innocent. "He'll expect you to what?"
Harry gathered himself and glared at his Section Chief. "To have carnal relations, Mr White. Don't pretend to be obtuse."
By this time Dimitri and Beth were having a hard time squashing their laughter.
Taking pity on his boss, Alec relented. "There are ways around that. The room is only wired for sound, so we will make a soundtrack that will make him think you are doing the dirty. All you must do is convince him at the conference that you're lusting after Ruth and is in serious danger of pinning her to the table in front of everyone if you can't get her alone in a room soon."
"Yeah, Harry," Dimitri piped up, "and that shouldn't be a problem for you."
All eyes turned to him incredulously. Harry's expression darkened dangerously and Dimitri realised that he had well and truly put his foot in it.
"Er, because we all know what a consummate field officer you were," he added hastily.
Harry's glare remained squarely on Dimitri when he spoke.
"Get out, all of you. I need to speak to Ruth in private."
Despite the ominous note in Harry's voice, Tariq lingered and looked between the two. "You'll both need to come to the recording suite and lay some groundwork for the soundtrack; you know, like saying each other's names in an appropriate manner-"
"GET OUT!" Harry shouted as his face turned an alarming shade of red. He was well beyond angry and firmly on the road to rage.
They could hear the others collapsing with laughter before Harry slammed the door shut behind the hastily departing Tariq.
Ruth wisely kept her own counsel as Harry paced furiously. Twice he turned to her as if about to speak, but both times he failed to get any words out and went back to pacing. Eventually his shoulders slumped a little and he sank into the chair opposite her.
"You knew about this." He sounded defeated, and there was something else in his voice that she couldn't identify.
"Yes," she answered quietly. "Alec asked me-"
Harry interrupted brusquely. "Did you enjoy seeing me humiliated like that?"
His voice was tight, angry. Hurt.
Her head shot up in surprise. "What? No! It's not like that, Harry. Alec checked beforehand whether I'd be willing to do this. That's the only reason I knew about it."
When she looked into his eyes she could see that he didn't quite believe her.
"None of this was meant to humiliate you," she stressed. "Why would you think that?"
"Ruth." He sounded so weary, so dejected that she crumpled the piece of paper in her hand unintentionally.
"They all know, after Albany, how I feel about you. And that you don't return those feelings. And yet they came up with this plan. It is pretty humiliating to have to pretend having an affair with someone who's rejected one's overtures consistently, wouldn't you say?"
Ruth closed her eyes. She had been so caught up in her own confusion about her feelings for Harry, that she hadn't really stopped to consider how things might look from his point of view. They should have told him in private, she realised. After thinking very carefully about her response she ventured, "I can see how it might look from your point of view. But honestly, Harry, this team respects you. Their main concern was putting together the best plan they could."
She hesitated, then continued doggedly, "If there is any personal agenda involved, I suspect they're trying, in their own misguided way, to play Cupid."
Harry's gaze lifted from the table to meet hers. "You're really okay with doing this? Given our… personal history?"
She looked into his lovely eyes steadily. "Yes," she responded, smiling ever so slightly, before getting up and leaving him to ponder all that had been said.
Harry watched her leave, and remained sitting there for a while. He couldn't help the faint flicker of hope that began to blossom in his heart.