'Harry, I'm requisitioning your operation in Southampton. Let's not make a frightful scene of it now, shall we?'

'You can forget any such schemes on my watch, Jools. That elastic remit of yours shall snap the second you go anywhere near our station there – I promise you.'

The haughty MI6 commander had barely bothered to consider the inevitable objections of his remote colleague in MI5; that much was to be expected. Jools simply sighed and accommodated Harry's intense disquiet by being a little less rude than would usually have been the case.

'Oh, Hear we go … as a certain strata of the vulgar masses are prone to proclaim! Harry, I really wouldn't embark on such a measure but for the fact that we both know the international theatre will always trump domestic goings-on whenever threats to this country arise; and always will.'

Harry was not prepared to flinch in the face of Jools' effortless conviction. 'We've been through all this before Jools, many times. Any such protocol can only proceed upon my executive approval; after inter-agency consideration and should agendas conflict – '

'Oh, for Satan's sake, Harry! Would you please, just this once, do us both a dignified favour and dispense with the tedious charade of attempting to avert the inevitable. I always get my way in these matters because, well, let's face it, I'm upwards of 15% smarter and it's simply mean-spirited of you to set about giving me a tough time over our congenital disparity.'

Jools took a stroppy sip from his huge brandy glass while Harry's hackles began to rise. Not at the breathtaking slight which Jules doubtless regarded as a straightforward verity! Rather, Harry discerned that the MI6 spymaster was pressing psychological buttons which meant a motive to distract or de-stabilize his concentration for whatever mysterious ends.

Jools gestured to the waiter in their vacated Whitehall gentleman's club. 'I'll have another Courvoisier, please Crispin.'

'And a glass of Glenlivet for me please – 18 year-old,' Harry requested.

'Very good, Mr. Pearce,' the waiter replied.

Harry remained expressionless but his resolute stare invoked an uncomfortable silence, sufficient in strength to induce Jools to conform to some semblance of accountability.

'Okay Harry, I really am sorry to have to break the news to you in this manner but I meant what I said at the start our discussion. I AM rescinding your operation in Southampton. Events were set in motion the moment you entered this building. I'm glad that you accepted my invitation to discuss ongoing concerns which may of course include the operational matter that I've somewhat sprung on you amidst these rather ornate settings,' he rambled, with a whimsical smile.

'Somewhat sprung – tell me your estimation of my strategic awareness is slightly higher than that of a cat in charge of a senile mouse?' Harry retorted.

Jools remained relatively congenial and laughed at the aside.

'Look Harry, I can't undo events set in motion nor the wider forces that govern specific operational conduct: we've both been at this far too long to get contrary when fate intercedes to upset some moldy applecart.'

'That moldy applecart was obviously an accomplished enough operation for your mob to hijack!'

'Well, that's as may be, old chum but the matter is already receding into our historical abyss. So may I simply suggest that you sit back and enjoy that fine choice of malt along with a decent Havana cigar to bring out the full flavour.'

Jools lay a box of cigars upon the coffee table between them and proceeded to light one with lingering eye-contact, as their beverages were placed upon the table. Harry felt certain of having been outmaneuvered but not on the basis of mere words that had just passed beyond Jools' lips. He simply believed that of every form of deceit that Jools could care to deploy, it would have remained ungentlemanly of him to detract a fellow officer from his duties on a spurious pretext.

Harry accepted a cigar and replied, 'I just hope you have the mother of all excuses for expediency on this one, Jools.'

Scene 2

Tender Touch massage parlour: Southampton Quayside 1:15pm


The Iranian suspect raised his shaking hands against all inclination to cover his manhood, as special forces operatives aimed semi-automatic weapons towards his head and chest. A prostitute shrieked, as the bedchamber became invaded by several members of the security forces.

'Alright, get him under a blanket and in the van to Vauxhall Cross for immediate interrogation,' a leading MI6 officer ordered. 'Search her, cuff her, then drive her in separately – you lot, take the room apart and update the commander; if anything untoward turns up.'

A forensic detail began to search the scene, as shouts and swearing between the raiding party, roaming parlour girls and their petrified clients resounded through all four floors of the exuberant establishment.

The MI6 officer turned placidly to a nearby colleague and instructed, 'Let Jools know the target has been taken and we'll go drop in on that other low-life.'

'Shall do, Martyn,' the second officer replied, casually.

'Martyn' surveyed the decadent scene before the pair of them left within a minute of their team having entered the building. Several furtive customers melted similarly away during the hushed but hysterical few minutes, thereafter.

Scene 3

'Jools, that high-class brothel is more than a mere source of leverage on shaky pillars of our political community. We've already initiated several avenues into Al-Qaeda activity through two working-girl assets. Not only that but as you may or may not be aware; inroads have been established into eastern European gangs behind human trafficking and a major sting is due to occur later this month – '

'Which we can't allow, I'm afraid.'

Harry knew better than to ask for an explanation. Either Jools would elaborate or revel in further realms of conceit for his own amusement.

'All I'm at liberty to say is that certain, complex, overseas efforts take precedence over the perfectly laudable work that you've instigated via that rather iniquitous premises. 'However,' Jools added with a pompous air, 'neither of our departments exist merely for humanitarian endeavour, so let's not indulge ourselves the travesty of tears over inevitable procedural adherence to the greater good.'

Harry's finely-tuned instincts – which were able to detect subterfuge in a crowded room – began to itch, feverishly, as his eyes sharpened and he leant forward to stare at his capricious counterpart.

'You've visited that establishment beyond the scope of our even older profession, haven't you?'

Jools balked but neither a confession nor further exposition of the 'overseas efforts' supposedly at stake were about to ensue.

'That and dozens more besides, if you must know! However, let's not be crass enough to conceive that I'm out to cover any grubby tracks on this occasion.'

Harry snapped. 'You owe me a verifiable reason for riding roughshod through years of painstaking work which has accrued significant intelligence, at grave risk to our agents-in-place!'

Jools was slightly startled and adopted a conciliatory tone. 'I really cannot elaborate on what I've already disclosed, Harry. Please, believe me – if only this once – I find this whole course of action truly regrettable. It simply became necessary to act immediately and regardless of the distasteful nature of the whole caboodle.'

Harry knocked back his scotch and planted the empty glass on the table with a loud resonance which prompted the butler to return to their meeting.

'This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that the Tender Touch is rather favoured by our Admiralty? We like to keep abreast of certain international criteria ourselves, particularly when senior naval officers make use of the facility to meet with officers from foreign powers.'

'And we appreciate your department's divulgence of those serious lapses of maritime security, Harry. But you're barking up the wrong rickety mast– there are no rival interests at stake here. And in the long run you'll probably thank me for stepping into the fray.'

'Long after you've retired to some Cuban villa, I suspect Jools.'

The butler stood warily at their table and glanced from one senior covert officer to the other. Crispin relaxed his manner and steadied his voice.

'May I provide you with any further beverages, gentlemen?' he offered, while the two spymasters became locked in unfathomable stares.

Scene 4

'It's Harry Pearce I deal with – who the fuck are you pair of gophers?'

The two M16 officers stared at the brash 28 year-old gangster, in his plush flat which overlooked Southampton Harbour. They were half-hoping that Danny Jennings' aggressive welcome would escalate and allow them to try out a few excruciating martial arts techniques, or even afford an opportunity to shoot him there and then and bury the body at sea.

Jennings sensed as much and modified his tone. 'Look, me and Harry have a straightforward deal – '

'The deal's off,' Martyn interrupted, 'and you're done with pimping profits at the Tender Touch. We don't expect you to comply with our request of course …'

The second officer, Simon, removed a pistol from his jacket and began to fix a silencer with a bored look on his murderous face.

'Oh, Jesus,' Danny dropped to his knees and began to beg. 'Look, I won't piss you blokes around, I promise – that's just one line of business to me – from one enforcer to another, let's – '

'What do you think, Simon?'

'I'd blow his shitty brains out for tuppence, is what I'm thinking.' He meant it.

Danny raised his arms in the hope that the officers might respond to a code of chivalry innate to their military world and began to sob.

Simon stepped forward and pointed his pistol straight towards Danny's forehead while Martyn spoke. 'There's plenty more where you came from son. Do you think we risk our lives to protect this country just for scum like you to run it?'

Martyn stepped forward to stand alongside Simon, just eight feet away from their target.

'Just let me have my passport and you'll never hear from me again, I swear.' Danny pleaded.

Simon and Martyn exchanged satisfied glances. The negotiation had went well and the marksman began to unscrew the silencer from his firearm. Martyn crouched down to Danny's level. 'There's no need to be a stranger, Danny. Just take a sunny vacation somewhere for the next year or two but try not to vanish completely. Our guvnor might well decide to make use of your shabby services somewhere down the line.'

Scene 5

'I find it bloody rich that you could even refer to that premises as your "station", Harry. Your officers were barely more than occasional punters while the operation was effectively run by the leading South Coast gangster!'

'Our resources were stretched –'

'Oh, balderdash! You simply sought to keep your hands off the goods; or at least be seen to, should the whole sordid scenario end-up in the press. And therein lay your undoing.'

'Are you on the verge of affording me some slight inkling, as to what you're really playing , Jools?'

Harry's time for the company of his fellow officer – now staring at him like an angler 'playing the line' – was rapidly reaching an end.

Jools exhaled a mouthful of cigar smoke and looked downwards, pensively. 'The target of our raid was a foreign diplomat and the circumstances … well, frankly none of your business.'

Harry studied Jools' posture which was all too affected, at the best of times, to betray dishonesty. Besides, mendacity was as natural to both of them as breathing, in the latter years of service to their country.

'What I can divulge is that Danny Jennings' departure from British gangland won't be missed by his eastern European ilk.'

The clouds began to reveal a skimpy portion of their secret sky at last.

'Jennings being some sort of pay-off to foreign crime-lords seeking a slice of his swollen empire?' Harry surmised.

'Well they may be lords in their own neck of the woods but we intend to keep their ever encroaching presence rather more manageable in these parts.'

Harry realised the tragic logic of a redrawn map of organised crime from an operational perspective, despite the immediate loss of substantial intelligence work, accrued under his own auspices. He drank up his second scotch and decided to return to Thames House.

However, it would not do to allow Jools to remain ridiculously comfortable after the MI6 rampage through his accomplished ambit.

'Just be careful that this entirely distasteful affair does not leave a very bitter aftertaste indeed, Jools.'

As Harry left, Jools guffawed quietly to himself but wondered if that parting remark could have hinted at a poisoned chalice having been snatched in the dark?

Such was often the nature of their world, regardless.

Scene 6

Harry was long out of earshot of Whitehall when he finally returned the missed call to Sonia: Madam of the Tender Touch massage parlour.

'I hear there was a major raid on your premises this morning,' he remarked.

'A lot of boys with bigger toys than they should really be allowed to run around with Harry. And where were you?'

'In the shadows, as always and in the dark on this occasion.'

Sonia laughed and knew that despite their twin tendency to live behind professional facades their dealings had always been truthful. "Apparently, we're under new management and they've shoved Danny Jennings to some far corner of the earth.'

'Well, let's hope the new hierarchy may conduct themselves with half as much integrity as their predecessor," Harry replied, sardonically. "And at least with the press blackout your … business life should return to normal far sooner than after previous police raids.'

'Well, there is that … '

There was a palpable anxiety beneath the pause in their conversation.

'Will we see each other again then, Harry?'

He sighed and smiled. A rare rapport existed between the habitual actors whose internal integrity was set at a similar frequency. Harry knew he would have to vanish from the scene as a basic security measure. However, he would occasionally allow his life some semblance, if only a parody, of normal existence.

'A coffee would be rather pleasant, sometime, Sonia, when the dust has had a chance to settle. In the meantime, may I ask a particular favour?'

'Course you can, Harry.'

Harry attached a picture of Jools to a text.

'I'm sending you an image of a rather despicable individual from my files and depositing £1000 in your business account. I believe he may have frequented your establishment in the past and suspect he'll show up again, sooner or later.'

'I've got the photo, Harry. Yes, I think this one was in here after a day at the racecourse or something, last year. One of your targets for assassination?'

'Well not precisely, Sonia,' Harry laughed. 'However would you please ensure that whatever masseuse may eventually be tasked with his gratification, is briefed and bribed to provide the roughest hand-job ever bestowed upon a client in the civilised world.'

'I could ask you which world we're talking about Harry but just leave it with me.'

'Take care, Sonia.'

Her words lingered, as always. It was 12.30am and Harry switched off his bedside lamp with an inner warmth which guaranteed a rare but good nights sleep.