“You're not the only one who can keep a secret.”
— Sir Anthony Fairchild, in 'Identity Crisis'
Alex tugged her veil as she strolled along the path, thrilled by how the day had gone. Weddings were never as perfect as the plans that led to them; as Ed had put it, thinking her out of earshot, there was always a hitch in the hitching. Every wedding the team had attended had ended in disaster.
This wedding had been the total opposite. The summer day was scorching, setting straight from a masterpiece. Her Grecian-style gown clung to her like a second skin, exactly as she'd designed it to.
And then there was the groom. She’d known Adam Mosby for a few short months, but events had bonded them as if it had been years. Even the discovery that he’d helped two criminals steal CAT Flap—after they’d learned he’d laundered Hive funds through a trust—couldn’t part them. Adam was contrite, and ready to pay for his crime.
Alex was in love: her forgiveness had been only a little harder won than her heart.
She stopped by some of her guests, sipping at crystal flutes. “Has anyone seen my husband—?” She giggled, the novelty overwhelming her. “It’s so weird saying that!”
Part of her noted that Ed was there. She couldn’t envisage a day he wasn’t. Ed was her dearest friend; a connection that had always held potential for more. One disastrous date had placed that squarely on the back burner, and soon after, Adam had entered her life. The darkly brooding Hive agent was nothing like blond, vivacious Ed.
In the beginning, if Alex was honest, that had been the main attraction.
While Ed had been struggling to prove himself boyfriend material, their colleagues Ros Henderson and Nick Beckett had begun a love affair of their own. But that had gone pear-shaped too: Ros had disappeared with Sunstorm, a group of environmental activists run by old friends. One memorial service and the death of her ex-fiancé later, what had seemed like a fairytale had collapsed into dust. Ed and Ros had been left out in the cold as other relationships blossomed: Beckett and his neighbour, Christa, and Alex and Adam.
She’d been Mrs Mosby for a few short hours, and it was everything she’d ever dreamed of: happiness so exquisite it fizzed like champagne. She wanted to revel in it, like a child; do somersaults on the grass. It was superstition, more than propriety, that prevented her: a lingering fear of hitches. Happiness was hard-won, and easily lost. It could slip through her fingers, like her wilted bouquet. The petals had dropped in the heat, leaving a scented trail behind her.
The thought of the bouquet reminded her to throw it in Ros’s direction, once the reception wrapped up. Beckett had chosen Christa as his plus one, but Ros was all alone. She deserved to find someone special, after everything that had happened. Alex pondered turning her hand to matchmaking, once they returned from honeymoon.
Love could conquer all: even the friction between estranged old flames.
The romantic notion was shattered as two shots split the air. Alex turned towards the sound, instinctively tracking it. Her guests began to scatter, a flock of startled birds. Ed and Jan set off at a sprint. Alex was left behind, bewildered, limbs locked in place.
Two years of Bureau service fired her into action. Alex flew across the path, skirt in her hands, pins slipping from her bun. She pushed through a cowering crowd, into the hall past the glass. There she spotted Ed: bent over a body. His expression was grim, tanned face gone grey with shock. Jan had turned as pale as the statues, standing vigil around them. A hand was clasped to her mouth in silent horror.
As Alex took in the scene, her heart thumped faster and faster, louder and louder, a jackhammer in the midst of paradise. When she realised the body on the floor was her husband, it almost stopped beating altogether.
She bolted to Adam and stumbled to the floor, clutching him. He smelled faintly of her perfume, skin as warm as when he’d kissed her, after their vows. But sweetness was laced with the metal of blood, and his neck rolled limp in her arms. She whispered his name, waiting in vain for an answer.
This was the disaster Ed, Ros and Beckett had feared would come. Love couldn’t conquer all, after all. It only made heartbreak more inevitable.
Buried in Adam’s hair, tears blotting out the world, Alex was barely aware of Ed and Jan, backing away. It was the ice in Jan’s voice that registered, as she posed a question to Ed.
“Where are Ros and Beckett?..”
Alex clung tighter to Adam’s motionless form as it dawned on her that the nightmare was far from over.
This was only its beginning.
“I close my eyes, but I can’t get to sleep because it’s all I see and hear. When I do fall asleep, it’s all I dream about. Then I wake up, and for a second everything feels fine. And then I remember, and it starts all over again...”
Ros stared across her desk at the man sitting opposite. He was more gentleman spy than psychiatrist, with his tweed suit and easy manner. A long-time friend of Jan’s, who’d helped her through a recent crisis, he might well have been both. It had been her idea, that Ros pay him a visit: a hair’s breadth from an order. The concept jarred with Ros, who’d insisted they meet at the Bureau, instead of his office.
With thin glass panels keeping her troubles from her colleagues, she was starting to regret it.
“What you’re experiencing is perfectly normal,” Simon said, hands steepled in his lap.
“Recurring nightmares are normal?”
“Being kidnapped must have been highly traumatic.”
“Just another Saturday at the Bureau,” Ros said, hackles rising. “We save the explosions for Fridays.”
“Why don’t you tell me something about it?”
If he could coast along, parroting stock lines, then so could Ros. She rattled off cold, basic facts; reciting from her report. “It started at the wedding. At the reception. I noticed one of the guests—Stefano—arguing with Adam. It seemed strange, so I went to fetch Beckett. While we were watching them, Stefano grabbed Adam and marched him away, into the hall. We followed them.”
She swallowed hard, mouth gone parched. “They were fighting. Beckett tried to break it up. Then there were two shots from the doorway, and Adam fell to the floor.”
Simon nodded, a study of dispassion. The story had no discernible effect on him. Ros wondered if there was anything he hadn’t heard before; anything that possessed the power to move him.
“Stefano forced us out of the hall and into a limousine. It drove off. Then we found out who the person in the passenger seat was.” Ros’s throat closed up, at the idea of saying the name. “He was hoping to use Adam to steal Code Red files from the Hive. They had a deadline to meet. It was pure coincidence it fell on the day of the wedding.”
Simon was nodding again. His hair bobbed at the edge of her vision. She wondered how good he was at treating vertigo.
“He’d sent Stefano to fetch him; they must have been trying to use the fraud as leverage. But they didn’t realise someone had already tried that trick, and Adam had confessed. They had no hold over him anymore.”
“So they took you instead?”
“He knew who we were. Adam was surplus to requirements, once we turned up. All three of us were in the wrong place, at the wrong time... Because of me, sticking my nose in.”
Simon’s head ceased its motion, as if they were getting somewhere. “You don’t think you did the right thing?”
Ros weighed it up. She shrugged. “Sometimes I think I should learn to leave well alone. Maybe that way Adam would still be alive.”
“Perhaps this man would have killed him anyway.”
“He killed him because we were more useful than he was. Chances are they would have let him go.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t,” Ros agreed. “But it makes me a great deal happier to think it.”
“So these files...you and Beckett stole them instead?”
“We didn’t have any choice. They played us off against each other. They told Beckett they’d kill me if he didn’t co-operate, and they told me they’d kill him.” She clenched and unclenched her fists, releasing some tension. “I suppose we could always have chosen not to help them.”
“It’s quite understandable that you’d put the safety of your colleague first.”
“We’re supposed to be better than that. We’re agents, now. Agents make those kinds of sacrifices...” She sighed, thinking of Roland. “But I never can.”
“What happened after you stole the files?” asked Simon.
“They used what was in them to kill an awful lot of people.”
“I understand one of the kidnappers also died?”
Ros granted him a nod of her own. “Ed had got a tracker on their car. They went on the run—they were trying to leave the country. SSD had them cornered, but they wouldn’t give in: they even took hostages. Dent overruled Jan, and sent in the guns. Eight hostages died too, and two agents. Dent was bumped back to the Hive, and Stefano’s in a coma somewhere. They’re not sure he’ll ever recover.”
“You were there when all this happened?”
“Oh no,” Ros said, realising her voice had begun to quake. “We’d served our purpose by then. They locked us up and left us to die. If it hadn’t been for Ed...if he hadn’t got to us in time...”
“That must have been a dreadful experience.”
She pursed her lips, trying to stop the irritation spilling over. “You keep on stating the obvious! How is this supposed to help me?”
“You’re re-telling what happened,” Simon explained. “It gives you power over the memories. You’re controlling them, instead of the other way around.”
“Except they are controlling me.” Ros wiped a hand across her cheek; a tear had escaped and was on its way to her chin. “I can’t sleep. I can’t stop crying. Every time I think about it—which is almost all the time—I feel sick to my stomach.”
“All completely natural responses to what you’ve been through.”
“It was far from the first time,” Ros reminded him. “Alex has had more to deal with than anyone. She was the only one left standing, from the entire Bureau of Weapons. As if that wasn’t enough, she lost her husband. At their own wedding! I have no idea how she’s still functioning...but she is. She’s coping much better than me.”
“We process trauma in different ways, Ros, and at different rates. It’s a journey, not a race. And I understand you had brain surgery only weeks before the wedding...”
“Oh, that explains it. They removed the bullet from my brain and replaced it with a tap. I should be happy I’m alive,” Ros insisted. “Not going over and over everything that happened. This is a waste of time.”
“Tell me,” Simon ventured, “have you talked about it with anyone else?” He paused. “With Beckett?”
Ros shook her head.
“Perhaps he’s experiencing some of the same things you are..?”
“I doubt it,” Ros said. The words felt like bitter fruit in her mouth. “Beckett’s strong. He doesn’t need a therapist.”
“You think you’re weak?”
“It’s crossed my mind.”
Simon smiled, patient to a fault. “I hope to disabuse you of that notion over our next few sessions.”
Ros stared at him in horror. “Exactly how many do I have to have?”
“You can’t expect to get over something like this overnight, Ros. And there’s no shame in seeking help to overcome it.” He made a movement with his hand, as if to pat hers, or give her that impression. There was a razor-sharp brain, inside that rumpled frame. He stood up. “I’ll check my diary and call you later, arrange another appointment.”
“Thank you for seeing me,” Ros said, on auto-pilot; making a last-ditch bid to be polite. She considered sending his calls to voicemail, to be forever ignored.
She caught a glimpse of Ed and Beckett, through the blinds, next door in Beckett’s office. The thought of them seeing Simon, working out who he was, made her cringe. Beckett could share the gossip with Christa, when he got home. They could laugh about it, over a candlelight dinner. The irony surely wouldn’t escape him. He’d ended up with the girl next door, still—and he’d picked the one who wasn’t crazy.
Ros closed her eyes, resisting the urge to retch. She tuned out Simon’s goodbye and turned back to her computer, in search of distraction.
Ed perched on Beckett’s desk, modelling a Dervish from scrap paper, as he watched the man Ros had been ensconced with for the last hour. He looked vaguely familiar, from a distance. Ed tracked his steps to the lift, sure he’d seen him before. Eyebrows wagging, he turned to Beckett.
“Looks like Ros has got herself a new bloke.”
“She hasn’t finished with the old one,” said Beckett. He eyed Ed’s handiwork, mouth curling a critique.
Ed knew who he was getting at. Graeme Hurry, a client from Kamen and Ross, had loaned millions to Ros a few months before, to buy back her designs. The licence had fallen into the hands of Mr Tachibana, who’d bought the company started by Ros’s ex Channing, and its subsidiaries. When the money had gone up in flames, Ros and Hurry had been in deep trouble. Tachibana had resolved the problem with a chilling sort of elegance: buying the bank as well, adding Ros’s debt to his pile of leverage.
Ed had assumed the screw-up had driven a wedge between her and Hurry, but he’d been wrong. He’d been hanging round ever since, and the crisis seemed to have brought them closer. Ed wasn’t convinced there was anything going on, at least not for Ros, but it was clear the mild-mannered banker had different ideas.
“Someone has to give her a shoulder to cry on,” he said. He re-folded his flaps, refining the wings. Beckett was frowning, subtext transmitted loud and clear.
“You went through the same thing,” he added, aiming the plane at a spot in the corner. “Thought it might have brought you closer—” The Dervish sailed past its target and crashed, nose down, on the rug. “Feels like it’s pushed you even further apart.”
“Ros and I aren’t joined at the hip, you know.”
“You were once,” he said, probing softly. Beckett always shut him down at this point in the conversation. Maybe he was ready to open up: the way he used to be.
“That was a long time ago.”
Ed knew the feeling. He slid off the desk, after his downed craft. “You can’t turn it off like a light switch. You must still care about her.”
“I’ve got Christa now, Ed...”
“Do you love her?” Ed asked. He smoothed the paper, starting over. The creases stayed right where they were. Too much damage, perhaps, to overcome.
Beckett paused. “Of course I do.”
“You hesitated,” Ed said.
“Maybe I was thinking what a personal question it was and deciding whether to answer it.”
Ed returned to his perch. He gave the mutant Dervish a poke of his finger. It slid across the glass, headed for another crash landing. “All I know is, Beckett, we could do with some stability round here, but it feels like everything keeps—shifting. I can’t keep up.”
“The wedding was hard on all of us,” Beckett said, loosening his tie. They’d gone from garish to generic, of late. Today’s was on the grey scale. The fabric made Ed think of smoke, and mirrors. “It’ll take a long time for Alex to get over losing Adam like that.”
“Be a bit insensitive,” Ed conceded, “to carry on like nothing had happened.”
“But life has to go on. We can’t stand still forever. We’re just going to have to be very careful with her for a while.”
The word evoked a pang that Ed was well-accustomed to. He’d been careful with Alex ever since Adam had arrived on the scene. And look where it had got him: the same old spot in the shadows. He pushed it from his head and glanced at the divide, checking on Ros. Her dark head was bent over her keyboard, like she’d fallen asleep on it.
“To be honest with you, B, it’s not only Alex I’m worried about. I reckon Ros is having a tough time of it, too.”
“She’s been through a lot lately,” Beckett agreed, a beep sounding from his jacket. He dug out his phone and punched open a message. Ed snuck a quick peek before he stuffed it back under cover. Christa, something dress, something flowers. Maybe she was at the florist, brightening Beckett’s dump of a bachelor pad.
“You mean when you guys were kidnapped.”
Beckett stiffened at the words. Ed reminded himself to tread lightly.
“So what exactly—”
“You read my report,” said Beckett.
Ed had the distinct impression of a door, being slammed in his face. “But how—”
“Look, Ed, you can’t imagine what it was like unless you were there, all right?”
“I was only going to ask—”
“Well, don’t!” Beckett sighed, his anger subsiding. “We’ve been in tight spots before, but that...” His eyes slid to the floor, avoiding Ed’s. “I really thought my time was up. And so did Ros. We thought you’d given up on us, you know.”
“As if I’d do that,” Ed scoffed. The second it left his lips, he realised it was a lie. It was pretty much what he had done, faced with flimsy proof of Ros’s ‘death’, and Beckett going off the deep end. If Beckett remembered, or cared, he made no mention of it.
“You saved our lives, Ed,” he said. “If you hadn’t found us...”
Ed shrugged off the plaudits. He’d done the same with Jan, who’d tried to put him up for a gong. She’d hinted at it last week, again, when the lift had broken down, trapping her with Dent till Ed came to the rescue.
The only reward he wanted was for everything to get back to normal. Or, since things seemed in a constant state of flux around him, as close to it as the Bureau ever got.
“At least you were together, I suppose.”
Beckett nodded, but he seemed a bit distant. Ed wondered, not for the first time, if he was hiding something. He had read the report, as it happened, and it was vintage Beckett. It had told him everything and managed to say nothing, at the same time.
“You know what,” he said as he stood, not pushing his luck, “there’s a lesson in this for all of us, my friend.”
Beckett retrieved the plane. “The stationery cupboard needs an Ed-proof lock?”
“Don’t ever get married.”
Something ghosted past Beckett’s lips; either a grimace or a tight, ironic smile. He developed a sudden interest in a thread, dangling from his tie. Ed left him to it, spying through the shelves on Alex, at work across the hall. Beckett had mangled things further, by the time he turned back. He was staring at the floor again. And, if he didn’t know him better, looking almost...guilty. Ed pictured Christa’s message. Dread overcame him, climbing his spine like damp.
“Oh hell,” he said. “Please tell me you haven’t.”
Ed’s spider sense kept tingling. “Asked Christa to marry you!”
Beckett drummed his thumbs on the desk, a discordant beat. He didn’t deny it. Ed’s heart did another nosedive.
“I’m not discussing this here,” Beckett said. Ed folded his arms and eyeballed him. Resigned to it, he rose from his desk and crossed to the door, making certain it was shut.
Ed shook his head, absorbing it, as Beckett sat back down. His hands returned to his tie, striped by pulled stitches. He tightened it, the skin on his neck going red in protest. Ed paced before him, not letting it go.
“Okay, fine,” Beckett said. “We’re engaged. Are we done now?”
“Not pregnant, is she?”
“Give me some credit, Ed.”
“Why are you keeping it a secret, then?”
“It wasn’t a secret,” Beckett said peevishly. “Because no one knew. Until now.”
“Huh.” Ed gave his feet a break and sank into the opposite chair. The idle morning had taken on a gravity that neither of them seemed comfortable with. They sat in silence for seconds that stretched, into minutes.
“You don’t look very pleased about it,” Beckett said. Ed took a long, hard look at him. It sat on the tip of his tongue: the fact that Beckett didn’t seem ecstatic, either. The exact opposite, actually. He looked like a man condemned, too resigned to the noose to risk escape.
His courage failed him, harder than Jan on a course. “Sorry, mate... Listen, it’s a bit of a shock, you know? This is the last thing I was expecting.”
“You wanted to know what it was like when we were kidnapped. I suppose it made me want to make the most of my life. You never know when it’s going to be taken from you... Look at Adam.”
“Sure,” Ed said. Laid out like that, it was the logical decision. “Is this really the right time for it, though?”
“It’s been two months. Like I said... Life has to go on.”
Ed wanted anything but this relentless forward motion. But Beckett wouldn’t understand, even if he told him. Ed didn’t understand it himself. So he said, “But it’s because of Alex, yeah? That you kept it on the down-low?”
Beckett nodded. “Honestly? I wasn’t sure it was the right time. But Christa really wants this, Ed.”
“Is that enough?” he asked.
“Believe me,” Beckett said, “it’s the least I owe her.”
Ed thought it was a strange choice of words. But there were more pressing things on his mind than pursuing it, even if he’d dared to.
“What about Ros?”
Beckett shuffled in his seat. “What about her?”
“She needs to know what’s going on, Beckett. Before she hears it from someone else. You reckon you owe Christa—well, this much you owe to Ros.”
As Beckett chewed it over, Ed took a gulp of breath, in need of the oxygen. It suddenly felt way too much to handle. Leaving aside the timing, and why it had to be now—a second wedding meant another big shift. The ground kept moving, the clock kept ticking, and Ed alone stayed frozen in place. It was like being back in school, watching his mates all growing up, and growing away.
Leaving him behind, still playing with his toys. The one thing that time didn’t ever seem to touch.
Alex was tapping at her computer, searching for a case file, when her mail alert pinged. She clicked her inbox, expecting a message from a friend, or maybe her mum, seeing how she was. The answer made her frown at the screen. Alex opened the email, stomach sickening.
She looked up and saw Jan, fresh from braving the lift. Alex had observed a marked change in her boss in the years since she’d formed the Bureau, successor to the ill-fated Bureau of Weapons Technology. The code name was a symbol of the distance she’d once kept from her team. That would never change: but the woman beneath it was quite different indeed.
Their relationship had had a turbulent beginning, with Jan unable to view a lowly filing clerk as field agent material. But things had shifted there, too. Alex might never be close to Jan in the way Beckett was, but she trusted her implicitly. She thought and hoped that Jan did the same for her. Jan was a hard nut to crack, an implacable foe—and a formidable ally.
“That would make a pleasant change,” she said, angling the screen.
Permission granted, Jan stepped closer. Her sharp eyes scanned the email.
“The solicitors dealing with Adam’s estate,” Alex explained. “They want to see me this afternoon.”
“I trust he left a will?”
She nodded. “It was one of the conditions when he joined the Hive.”
“It was considered a prudent addition to the contracts,” Jan said. “For many years it was barely a footnote. They were very proud of how long it had been since an agent was sho—” She cleared her throat, rethinking the word choice. “—killed in active service.”
“Then they got lucky,” Alex said.
“Perhaps. Some members of the executive credit it to Dent, and his reluctance to take risks.”
“I bet they don’t think that anymore.”
“Risk is a two-edged sword, Alex. The loss of Agent Ballantyne changed many things at the Hive. Up to and including our friend Mr Dent.”
Dent was no friend of the Bureau, or of Jan. Yet Alex couldn’t tell if she was criticising him, or mounting a defence. “But Ballantyne was the only one, wasn’t he?” She cupped her chin in one hand. “Until Adam.”
“Officially, of course,” said Jan, “he’s listed as a missing person. The location of his body remains, to this day, a mystery...” She gestured back to the screen. “I’m sure it’s nothing sinister. Probate is usually quite straightforward.”
“You’d think so,” Alex said. “His will’s very simple: it leaves everything to his next of kin. That’s me. I can’t understand why they’d need to see me now.” She composed a reply, and hit Send. “I never realised how much there was to deal with when someone died.”
“I’m sure that has everything to do with the circumstances,” Jan said.
“Oh, I don’t mean the investigation. At least that was an open and shut case. Everything else.”
“You’ve put his flat on the market, I hear?”
Alex nodded. “I could apply to take over the mortgage...but I can’t face staying there, on my own.” She tilted back her chair. “And that’s not the hardest part. I have to go through all his things; work out what to do with them. Letters keep coming for him...for us. And I don’t have the heart to open them. What’s the point? He’s not going to come back for them...for any of it.
She looked at Jan, ever hopeful as she posed the question, as if one day she’d get a different answer. It hurt to think that Adam wouldn’t walk through the door at night; would never send another text, to brighten her day. She’d weathered the anger quickly—it helped that his killer had also died, and was unable to hurt anyone else—but disbelief lingered. She was half-hoping, even now, that someone would knock on the door, and tell her it was one big mistake.
“Tony felt much the same after Julia’s mother passed away,” Jan said, hand dropping to Alex’s shoulder.
A movement across the hall caught Alex’s eye. She looked up to see Beckett, emerging from his office. He passed Alex and Jan, oblivious to their presence. He’d taken the long way round, as if he needed the extra seconds. He rapped on Ros’s doors and marched inside, without waiting for an answer.
“It makes me feel closer to him, in a way,” Alex mused. “I’ve been sorting through his books...all his photos. I offered to help him scan them, but he said he preferred them as they were. Untouched: that was the word he used. He thought he was being funny. There’s so many albums, Jan. I’ve barely scratched the surface. And I have no idea what to do with them...”
Jan’s attention had drifted. Her eyes were trained on Ed, who’d followed Beckett from his office. He was hovering outside Ros’s, wearing nervous tracks in the carpet. Alex squinted, spying inside. Beckett was doing the talking. Ros stood with folded arms, shaking her head as she listened.
The floodgates opened. Ros pointed a finger at Beckett and gave him both barrels. He took it on the chin for a while, then snapped under the onslaught, returning it in kind. It was the one sealed room in an open-plan space; Alex heard nothing but muffled voices, but the expressions on their faces spoke volumes. So did Ed’s: he looked crestfallen.
“What’s going on?” Alex wondered, as the argument escalated.
“Let’s find out,” Jan said, smoothing her skirt with brisk intent. She homed in on Ed, Alex in hot pursuit.
Ed’s expression turned sheepish when he saw the cavalry approaching. Jan arched an eyebrow in question. He folded his arms like a stubborn little boy; either unable to answer, or unwilling to. Jan looked at Alex, and reached for a door. Ed threw out a hand to stop her, as if she was entering the lion’s den.
“No, Jan, don’t—”
The protest landed too late. With one swift movement, Jan was in the cage and taming the lions. Hostilities suspended, Ros and Beckett turned their focus to her. Ed and Alex peered around the doorway, two disembodied heads.
“Would either of you care to tell me what the problem is?”
“There is no problem,” Beckett said.
Ros made a short, incredulous noise.
“You don’t agree, Ros?”
Alex swapped a glance with Ed. Ros stepped away, leaving Beckett exposed and alone on his side of the room.
“Are you going to tell them, or should I?”
“Now hang on a second,” Beckett said, voice rising, “this was between us—”
“Our little secret?” Ros laughed. Something flashed across Beckett’s face, too fast for Alex to decipher. “I don’t think so.”
She’d seemed tired and listless ever since the operation. Alex thought that anger suited her better. Her eyes were blazing like coals, stoking fire beneath her cheeks.
“Beckett and Christa are getting married.”
Alex stared at Beckett, who was having a hard time meeting her gaze. She felt suddenly cold, a chill spreading through her.
“Now?” she asked, in a small voice.
“Alex,” Beckett said, choked with emotion, “I didn’t—”
But what Beckett didn’t want or mean or do, none of them found out. While he was talking Ros had turned pale, slapped a hand to her mouth and stumbled past Alex and Ed, into the hallway. She looked for the world like she was about to be violently sick.
And Alex knew exactly how she felt.
Ed had never been more uncomfortable, in the entire history of the Bureau, than he was in the hours that followed Beckett’s news. Given that Dent had been his boss at one point, it wasn’t like they were short of competition.
Alex had been as brave as he’d come to expect. Scurrying off with the excuse of powdering her nose, she’d returned with a smile pasted on, assuring Beckett that he didn’t have to make allowances for her. Jan disagreed, if the snort that emerged from her had been any indication. Relations between them, often the warmest in the office, had turned decidedly frosty; Ed thought it no coincidence that the pins in his shoulder had begun to ache.
Ros had stuck it out for another hour, looking greener with every second that passed. Jan had stopped looking daggers at Beckett long enough to realise that something else was up. She’d sent her home with orders not to return, until she felt fit enough to be there.
In the end, Beckett had growled something about compassionate leave and trudged off in a mood as foul as his tie. He’d ignored Ed’s texts, clearly blaming him for the fallout. After all, he was the one who’d guessed what was going on, and convinced him to drop the bomb on Ros. The timing would have been off, Ed realised now, whenever he’d chosen to tell her.
Ros had it tough. She was recovering from the surgery, and the kidnap, and everything that had gone down with her and Beckett: starting with Terry, and ending in Christa. The engagement had salted the wound, and then some. Not that Ros had ever discussed it with him, or with Alex and Jan, as far as he knew. Work came first, and they were so caught up in their own lives these days that it hadn’t been an option. It was pretty obvious how she felt, though.
The only one who didn’t seem to notice was Beckett. Maybe he didn’t want to.
Alex had gone to see her brief, which left Ed to run the Bureau, with Jan as sidekick. There was a comic book in that, somewhere, if not in their task. They were preparing for a department-wide audit, but Ed’s mind wasn’t on it. He suspected Jan was every bit as disinterested as he was.
“This place is falling apart,” he grumbled, tossing a file away from him. How the hell had he morphed from daredevil, into corporate drone? The establishment had eaten his team and spat them out, good little agents. And as for the promise Beckett had made about no clock punching, back at the start...
Jan glanced at him in wry recognition. “The last few weeks have been somewhat testing. That much I’ll allow.”
“I bet Blatty never had these kinds of problems.”
“Roland Blatty had a staff of over two hundred. There are only the four of you here. Personal problems were always going to take their toll, sooner or later.”
“As opposed to personnel problems,” Ed quipped. He looked at Jan. Woman was a tough crowd. Not a flicker. “I don’t know how much more of this we can take.”
Jan closed her own folder and placed it on the neat pile in front of her. “Bureau Two is far from an effective force at the moment, it’s true.”
“Maybe we should shut it down, then...”
There went the eyebrow again. Ed mirrored it, undaunted. He was, after all, only fifty percent serious. Sixty-five, on a bad day: which this had rapidly become. “Or have all briefs assigned to the Hive for a while. Something. Anything.”
“As a matter of fact,” Jan said, “I’ve arranged a meeting with Dent to do precisely that.”
Ed’s mouth gaped like a fish. “What happened to the Bureau has to go on?” he said, throwing her own words back at her. Things had officially gone sideways if Jan was changing her stance on that one.
She held up a hand, forestalling any protest. “I’ve been considering the idea ever since the wedding. Today’s events confirmed its wisdom.”
“Dent’s going to love that.”
“Giving him some small satisfaction,” Jan said, “is simply the price we will have to pay, to restore normal operations.”
Ed recalled the scurrilous rumour he’d heard about Dent and his secretary. The opening was there for the joke. But he was on too much of a downer to take it.
“I don’t know, Jan. I’m not sure we’re ever going to get back to normal.”
“Have a little faith, Ed. Time is a great healer.”
“Yeah, but this is different. Beckett’s got every right to move forward, but we’re all painting him as the bad guy. No wonder he stormed off like that. As for Ros, she’s been in a right state ever since the wedding, and now this one’s come along to make it worse. And Alex...she’s so good at pretending everything’s okay, but we all know it’s not. It’s not like Adam was run over crossing the street. He was murdered—on their wedding day. How is someone supposed to get over something like that?”
Jan considered his words. “Believe me, Ed, I am not unsympathetic to what Alex and Ros are going through.”
It didn’t escape Ed’s notice that she’d excluded Beckett. “Is there a but at the end of that?”
“But they will get over it.”
“You don’t just get over it when someone goes and marries someone they shouldn’t,” Ed snapped. He went quiet, more having escaped than he’d intended.
Jan was observing him closely. “Do you still have feelings for Alex, Ed?”
He ran a hand through his hair, reminded of what Beckett had said about personal questions. Ed was an open book—well, kind of. But he hadn’t planned on spilling his secret to Jan today, either. “We could have been good together, you know? But I wasted my chance. I thought I had all the time in the world to put it right. I never banked on Adam coming along and stealing her from me.”
“Is that really what you think happened?”
Ed heard the rebuke. How could Adam have stolen Alex from him? She’d never been his in the first place. “All I know is, if I hadn’t been such an idiot, Adam would never have got a look in...”
His thoughts on the matter were more complex than he made them sound. He’d spent a lot of time looking back, disaster traced to its source. It hadn’t been their one and only date that had made things go south between him and Alex. It hadn’t even been Adam. Ed had concluded that it had been Sasha: playing on his hopes for a second chance. She’d tempted him from the future he might have had, by pulling on the string marked stupid.
“We might have got our acts together, he might be alive, and this—”
Jan was nodding as he gestured around him, knowing there wasn’t any one thing to point the finger at, any one thing to blame. It was a combination of the people, the decisions they’d made, the time at which they’d made them. All of it wound together in a knot so screwed-up it might never unravel.
“This mess—it might never have happened.”
“I understand you have regrets, Ed,” Jan said softly. “Each of us lives with those. But we can’t change history—what matters is how we choose to deal with it. It’s the only way any of us will be able to move forward.”
Ed nodded, translating. In other words: Ros had to get over Beckett, Alex had to get over Adam, and he had to get over her. Three quick and easy steps to putting the Bureau back together.
He met Jan’s eyes. “So how long have we got?”
Ros tapped her foot impatiently as she glanced at her watch. After leaving the Bureau she’d driven to the office of Mr Baker, the consultant who’d treated her post-surgery. She’d been signed off weeks ago with a clean bill of health, a testament to the skills and technology that had saved her life. But the state of her health had been playing on her mind: Simon’s idle comment had crystallised gnawing doubts into outright fear.
I understand you had brain surgery only weeks before the wedding...
It worried her, that she couldn’t bite her lip and congratulate Beckett on his engagement; swallow down her feelings and pretend to be pleased. It had been hard enough seeing Christa at the wedding, hanging off him like a handbag. The thought of watching them, pledging eternal devotion, made her want to scream.
Ever since the kidnap, she’d felt like her emotions were running wild. The flashbacks were bad enough. Being a hostage again, this time to her feelings, was even worse. She was far more embarrassed about shouting at Beckett than she was about retching her way to the corridor after. Ros had always been a professional, before. Her cool exterior was something she took pride in, however much of a mess she was on the inside.
Terry’s death hadn’t changed that. Nor had her regrets over Beckett. The bullet that had been lodged in her brain, however...
Ros looked up as the door opened and Baker walked back into the office, a folder in hand. He flicked through the file as he sat behind his desk.
“I promise you, Ros, your last CT scan was perfectly normal. Mr Chandra did a sterling job. There’s nothing to be concerned about...”
She’d heard all this, and more, before. He’d explained how close she’d come to sustaining permanent brain damage, once she’d recovered enough to hear it. It had sent an ice running through her that had yet to thaw. She knew how lucky she’d been to have escaped unscathed again, after Cyberax. Or so she’d thought.
“With respect,” Ros said, “I disagree.”
“You said you’re having counselling?”
“It’s a condition of my job,” she lied, ruing the disclosure. If only clocks turned back. “He made me wonder whether my symptoms were a side-effect of the surgery.”
“And you’ve excluded the possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder..?”
Ros drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, wondering when someone would take her seriously. If she’d be able to take herself seriously, ever again.
She couldn’t hide the turmoil. It was already on view, clear as day on her face. Mr Baker regarded her with equally evident concern. He’d fitted her in as a courtesy; a sop to an anxious, government-funded patient. But he handled her now with the same care as an unexploded grenade.
“All right, Ros. I’ll do some tests.”
Her heart clutched with sudden terror. “What kind of tests?”
“Let’s start with bloods and work from there. If any abnormalities show up, then we can investigate further.” He smiled at her. “How does that sound?”
Ros had always liked him, but suddenly she felt as if she was being patronised. “Terrific,” she said, not bothering to disguise the sarcasm.
Baker gestured at the adjacent cubicle, unperturbed. Ros followed him over to the bed, nerves jangling, like a lamb being led to the slaughter.
“I understood that dealing with my husband’s affairs would be a simple matter,” Alex said, stepping into the solicitor’s wood-panelled office, lined from ceiling to floor in books. It was as traditional as the firm itself. Andrews, Cartwright and Callender had been based in the heart of the City since Victorian times.
“Please take a seat, Mrs Mosby, and I’ll explain,” Cartwright said. He was a balding man on the cusp of retirement, wearing an pair of stylish, dark-rimmed glasses. They reminded Alex of Stefano, forcing her focus to his chin. He was a descendant of the Cartwright who’d founded the firm, or so their website claimed. It struck her as odd, that a senior partner could see her at such short notice.
“Now,” he began once they were both seated, “we’ve received notification of a claim by one of your husband’s creditors.”
Alex thought of the piles of unopened letters, awaiting attention. “One of them?”
“It’s also one of yours.” He passed a piece of paper across the desk. Alex’s heart sank to her toes as the text resolved into meaning.
“The Hive. Citing clause 13b, subsection 12 of the... They want back the money that Adam stole from them..?” She swallowed hard. “The whole lot? But that was being paid in instalments. We reached an out of court settlement...”
“A settlement that hinged upon you. You guaranteed the debt, Mrs Mosby. Your husband would certainly have gone to prison, if you hadn’t.”
“Where he’d still be alive?” Alex asked quietly. Another question she wanted a different answer to. Another she was never going to get.
It was common knowledge that Adam had stolen CAT Flap for Wymark and Zephyr, but he could have explained it if he’d chosen. They’d threatened to kill Alex unless he helped them, and Zephyr was the sole third party left who knew about the money laundering. Dent might have been suspicious, but he would never have believed her, over one of his own. With some fast talking and back up from Alex, Adam could have got away with it.
She’d considered it for less than a second, but it scared her to know she had. Adam hadn’t. He’d insisted that he wanted to make amends; to finally pay for his crimes. He’d been set on starting their married life on a clean slate, with no more secrets between them. It was so unfair that the reward for his honesty had been two bullets to his heart.
“Okay,” Alex said, struggling free of the memory. “Okay. I’m the guarantor. I’m responsible for the debt. But I was told the Hive would be paying compensation for his death. Wouldn’t that cover it? Mr Dent assured me personally—”
“I’m afraid that offer has been...withdrawn.”
“We discussed it in his office! Doesn’t that count as a verbal contract?”
“I take it there were no witnesses,” Cartwright said, “and you didn’t record the conversation.”
Alex shook her head to both. Dent had his office swept for bugs every hour, or so he’d told her, during that meeting. “Everybody has something to hide,” Jan had said, rather cryptically, when she’d mentioned how paranoid it seemed. “Secrets are currency, in our line of work.”
“Without any evidence, what it boils down to, essentially, is your word against his.”
She didn’t need to be told who came top in that scenario. Dent was a high-grade civil servant. He came out smelling of roses, however much manure he crawled through.
Cartwright flexed his fingers, cracking the joints. “The Hive’s contract of employment is explicit. It states that compensation is available to next of kin where the agent is killed in active service. Your husband died on your wedding day.”
Alex stared at him, rendered speechless. Traffic buzzed outside. A grandfather clock ticked on, in the corner of the room.
“I understand he had no life insurance?” he prompted. “No policy that paid out on death?”
“He was a government agent,” Alex retorted. “No company would ever insure us against death in service. It’s far too likely.”
“Then I’m afraid, as guarantor, the debt now falls on your shoulders.”
She shook her head, struggling to parse it. “But that’s impossible. He owed tens of thousands of pounds. I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Your husband laundered the cash through a trust fund. You must be able to locate some of it.”
“I can’t,” Alex said, thinking of the places Adam had taken her. The jewels and perfume and clothes. Not to mention the car. “As far as I know, he spent the lot.”
“Then perhaps you could sell the things he bought.”
Alex looked down at her hand. Her engagement and wedding rings glinted back at her.
“I realise this is difficult, Mrs Mosby,” Cartwright said. “But you have to find some way to recoup it.”
“How? I mean, there’s the flat...but that was Adam’s. I was renting; I moved in with him. There’s not enough equity to pay his mortgage company and the Hive. And all our savings went on the—” She was reminded, suddenly, of Beckett and Christa. Her voice trailed to a whisper. “The wedding.”
Cartwright threw her a bone, with a sympathetic smile. “We may be able to come to some kind of arrangement with the creditors.”
The Hive: which meant Dent. A lizard-blooded pragmatist, and professional pedant. Alex imagined the kind of favours he’d extract from the Bureau, in return for his help. Jan pensioned off permanently, for starters. This wasn’t about debt. It was revenge, sheathed in terms and conditions.
“Or we could go to court. Fight them.”
“Certainly we could,” he said. “Always assuming you have the funds to do so.”
Alex felt a ridiculous desire to laugh. Her hands, having no such outlet, were quivering. She trapped them between her knees to still them. “I, er, don’t suppose there’s any good news?”
“I have a daughter around your age,” Cartwright said, unexpectedly. Alex followed his gaze to a digital photo frame on his desk, images shifting every few seconds. It seemed almost as out of place as his glasses.
“If she were in this situation—if I were speaking to her informally, not offering any advice, you understand Mrs Mosby—I would be strongly suggesting she made efforts to establish that she was not, in fact, liable for the debt. That she was somehow unfit to sign the papers; was coerced, perhaps—”
Alex’s rings felt hot, sandwiched by skin. They burned as fiercely as her faith in Adam had. He’d never needed to coerce her into anything. She hadn’t needed any of the pretty, expensive things he’d given her. She would have protected him with her last breath; signed on any dotted line he’d placed before her. And she had, she realised.
Unease built in the pit of her stomach as she pictured the letters again. Waiting for her, back at a home that would never be hers. One of your husband’s creditors, Cartwright had said.
“That, or she discover the location of any residual funds and pay them back, as early as possible. Hypothetically, interest would be accruing on the total. And it is really quite substantial...”
Alex squeezed her eyes shut, hoping against hope that this was a bad dream, prompted by her colleagues and their mutterings of doom. Any second now she’d blink and wake up on the morning of her wedding: the day when nothing could possibly go wrong. The day that, for a few blissful hours, had been the happiest of her life.
It could only ever have been downhill from there.
Ros was flicking through a magazine in the reception area when her mobile rang. It was a bridal magazine, of all things; weddings tormenting her wherever she went. She smiled an apology at the frowning woman opposite and plucked the phone from her bag to silence it. A glance at the display changed her mind.
“Ros,” the calm voice of Graeme Hurry greeted her. “How are you?”
“That depends.” She ditched the magazine. Christmas weddings were very fashionable now, apparently. “How’s Mr Tachibana?”
He made a knowing snort. “So you know he’s in town this week?”
“I got an email from his PA.”
“Still chasing your next design?”
“I suppose I’ll have to send him some specs,” Ros said. “What do you think he’d make of a time machine..?”
“Yen signs in his eyes,” Graeme said with a laugh. “Don’t let him put you under pressure, Ros. Make sure you’re feeling up to it.”
Ros smiled fondly, touched by his concern. He would have been more than justified in blaming her for the entire fiasco. Instead their friendship had grown, from phone calls to visits to dinners. Hurry was an attractive man, and he’d been extra attentive since the wedding, but Ros wasn’t ready for anything more. She valued his friendship too much to throw it away on a rebound.
There was Ed, but that was no longer what it had been. He’d grown as preoccupied with Alex as she had with Beckett; Ros suspected it was too close for comfort for either of them. They’d seen less of each other, since Sunstorm. Ros had been perversely annoyed with him, after she’d learned how readily he’d accepted her ‘death’. Ed was more practical than Beckett, a cool customer to his hothead—but she’d never imagined he’d let either of them go, as easily as it seemed he had.
Things had been shifting between the three of them, in one way or another, ever since they’d joined the Bureau. Whatever was responsible for the distance between them, that left Graeme, and Ros was glad of his company.
“Come to lunch with me tomorrow,” Graeme suggested, “and I’ll tell you everything.”
“You want me to spare an hour out of my busy schedule listening to you carping about our lord and master?”
Ros glanced up and saw Mr Baker had popped his head around his office door. He caught her eye and beckoned her in.
“Graeme, I’ll have to go.”
“See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll pick you up at one.”
Ros replaced the phone as she entered the office. Baker shut the door behind her and sat at his desk. Ros felt her mouth go dry as she took a seat, waiting for him to speak. She took a breath and got in first.
“Do you know what’s wrong with me?”
He nodded. “The tests were quite conclusive.”
“Is it something to do with the operation? Do I need another one?”
Baker leaned back in his seat and smiled at her. “Ros...you’re pregnant.”
Ros stared at him. It felt like her body had turned to stone. Her heart beat liquid in her ears, head wild with static. Eventually, she realised he was waiting for a response.
“No, I—I thought that—that’s not—” She thought back, and suddenly it all made sense. She closed her eyes, blushing down to her bones, feeling like an ignorant teenager. No wonder he was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He probably thought it was hilarious that she’d dragged him away from his other duties for this.
“Ros,” he said gently, “are you okay?”
“Fine,” said Ros, eyes snapping open. She shot up from the chair, clinging to the edge through tight white knuckles. Her voice was so high-pitched that for a moment she wasn’t sure it had come from her. “Thank you for making time to see me.”
Not waiting for his answer, not hearing if he said anything else, she turned her back and walked out of the room, fishing blindly in her bag for her car key.
But she wasn’t heading home. There was someone else she had to see.
They had a few things they needed to talk about.
“I spent forty minutes on the phone to Dent,” Alex told Ed as she busied in her kitchen, making him a coffee. “Begging to him. It was like talking to a brick wall. He kept saying it wasn’t up to him, it was on the advice of their lawyers that in the circumstances they invoke such and such a clause, and recover the balance... Government cutbacks, economic realities, blah blah blah...”
She heaped four spoonfuls of sugar into the mug and stirred up a storm. Ed looked on, concern mounting. With the Bureau on ice for a while, he’d headed home, recalling vague plans he’d made for his overdue downtime. Catching up with Clare; beating his time on Ben Nevis; starting that Khazbek pronunciation guide, gone dusty on his bedside... Right now, it was all a pipe dream. He had a team to put back together, a whole host of problems to solve.
This was far worse than a sixty-five percent day. Hell: he’d even made a list.
“Surely any lawyer worth their salt would make mincemeat of that in court—”
“We’ll find out when we get there,” Alex said. She handed him the cup, eyes flashing. “Because that’s where this is going to end up. I don’t care what I signed. I’m not paying that money back.”
Ed had yet to ask how she was feeling about Beckett and Christa’s wedding. He bumped it down his ever-expanding list. “Yeah, but you know—stealing. It’s still a crime.”
“And Adam knew that! He was going to pay back the money, a bit at a time. Okay, he couldn’t have gone back to the Hive, but he would have found another job eventually. We would have paid them back, Ed. Even if he’d had to sweep streets.”
He made no comment, sipping at the hot, sweet coffee. He didn’t take sugar, but seeing the state Alex was in, he wasn’t about to point it out.
“But that’s not all.”
Alex gave a mocking laugh. “If only.”
Ed followed her out of the kitchen and into the lounge. There were dust lines on a shelf, where her wedding photos had been. Boxes were stacked upon boxes, as far as the eye could see. The arms of tailored jackets were hanging from them, trying to claw their way out. The table in front of the couch was buried under envelopes and letters. Some of them were red, and Ed didn’t have to read them to know what that meant.
He sat beside her on the sofa as she sifted through the letters, falling like ashes through her fingers.
“They came after Adam died. I didn’t open any of them; I couldn’t bear to. I suppose I buried my head in the sand. But after I met with Mr Cartwright, I had this horrible feeling...”
Ed’s eyes opened wide at the row of zeros on one of the letters.
“Adam owed thousands, Ed. Credit cards, personal loans—you name it, he had it. On top of what he owed the Hive.”
“So send them a nice letter and a copy of his death certificate. They can’t expect him to pay it back now.”
“They won’t. But they’ll expect me to pay it.”
Ed frowned. “Dent’s made you paranoid, Alex. Adam’s debts died with him, I promise you that. Just because you were married, it doesn’t mean you have to...”
“He took loans out in my name,” Alex said, voice almost too low to hear.
Ed put down his cup with a jolt, sloshing a ring on the letters. Brown seeped into paper, smudging the ink, as he turned to Alex.
“He did what?”
“Or maybe I signed for them, thinking they were something else... All I know is, he must have been taking them out for weeks. Months.” Tears crept to her eyes. “Before the wedding, when I suggested we get a joint account, or put my name on the mortgage, he almost bit my head off.
“He said it was obvious I didn’t trust him, even though he’d apologised for what happened. He was really upset, Ed. I felt awful. I ended up saying I was sorry! He said we should look forward to getting married, sort the rest out later. I thought it was the pressure of losing his job...”
“Pressure of keeping it all a secret, more like,” said Ed.
Alex smiled at him, blinking back tears. “It’s funny. I was telling Jan this morning how he was quite old-fashioned in some ways. And it seems like such an old-fashioned way of getting money...especially after CAT Flap.
“I altered Beckett’s records so he could get a mortgage. I changed Adam’s file so the Hive wouldn’t know he’d been an anarchist. You can commit any kind of fraud electronically, if you know how.”
“But Adam didn’t,” Ed pointed out. “He was a junior agent. Those are Ros-level tricks.”
“He knew what we can do at the Bureau. If he wanted money, all he had to do was ask for it.”
Ed felt suddenly wary. “Would you really have helped him?”
Alex reared back in shock. “Of course not!”
“But you loved him.”
“Not enough to play Bonnie and Clyde. Enough to sit back blindly while he played me like a fiddle. He really saw me coming, didn’t he?”
Ed reached out an arm to put around her, but, unsure if it was too much too soon, settled for a squeeze of her elbow.
“What was he going to do after the wedding?” he wondered, trying to work out what had been going through Adam’s mind. What the hell had he needed so much money for? Ed knew a fair bit about gold, having got up close in a vault with it: Alex’s jewellery wasn’t that expensive. “He must have known you’d find out sooner or later.”
“He was probably going to do a runner after the reception and leave me to carry the can. Maybe he was even planning on faking his own death.” She stared at the table. Her eyes, Ed noticed, were now dry as bones. “Got what he deserved then, didn’t he?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“He ‘fessed up about the trust fund, didn’t he?” Ed asked, struggling to find a silver lining. “Eventually...”
Alex shook her head. “It was Zephyr McBain who told me about that, not Adam. He told me he’d helped her and Wymark because they’d threatened to kill me. He was trying to keep me in the dark, even then.”
She swept the letters off the table with a half-hearted flourish. “I don’t care about the money. He lied to me, again and again. That’s what hurts the most.”
Ed sat in silence as she rested her head in her hands. “Maybe you could pay it back.”
“With what?” Alex said. “I don’t have thousands of pounds lying about, Ed. Neither did Adam.”
“He did when I stole his statement,” Ed said.
“You stole from him?”
It had been careless, to let it slip. But he couldn’t take it back now. “More like borrowed, really. A time-limited loan kind of...thing. Back when those twins tried to put you both on ice... Adam’s bank statement fell out of his jacket. I read it. And then I, er, copied it.”
Ed bit his lip as Alex stared at him. He’d never told her that he’d investigated Adam behind her back. He’d been so sure he’d stumbled onto some dark secret about his rival, one that would drop him from the scene for good. But when he’d learned that the payments to Adam had come from his uncle’s trust, he’d been forced to accept defeat. Jan had accused him of letting his jealousy turn into paranoia, and it had seemed she was right.
“I was worried,” he protested. “There were large deposits, far in excess of his salary. It made me suspicious—of course it did! You were going to marry this guy. It looked kosher, so I let it go. I had no idea he’d been laundering the payroll through the trust fund. None of us did.”
“Would you have told me if you had known?”
“Look,” Ed said, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Alex. I am. But I knew what it would look like...”
“That you didn’t trust Adam? That you didn’t trust my judgement?”
He backed off a little, seeing the fire in her eyes. “I said I was sorry, Alex. I want the best for you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.” His thoughts raced like a Harley, pinpointing things that had been overlooked the first time. “What if I went to Michaelson’s old PA? She could help us find out what he did with the money...”
“Oh, I already know what he did with it,” Alex said, with a hollow laugh. “He spent it.”
On what? Ed wanted to scream. Ask yourself, Alex: what the hell did he spend it on? What else was he hiding?
“What are you going to do?” he asked instead, ceding control to her.
“There’s nothing I can do,” she said. The spark in her eyes had dimmed to resignation. She stared at the letters, still as a statue. “The Hive I can fight. But I can’t prove I didn’t take out those loans. It’s Adam’s word against mine, and he’s gone. It doesn’t seem fair to start pointing the finger.”
Alex wasn’t energised by her anger, the same way Ed was; the way Ros had seemed. It paralysed her. She wasn’t ready to ask Ed’s questions, much less seek out the answers.
“Fair? What’s fair about this?”
“If I deny responsibility it would mean letting the whole world know that Adam was a thief. An even bigger thief than they thought. And how stupid would I look, letting him do that? No one would believe me, anyway. They’d think I was using his death to worm my way out of it.”
“No one would ever think that...”
Alex kept talking, sounding as defeated as she looked. “I have to take it on the chin. I can file for bankruptcy, or something...”
Ed snorted. “Alex, this is crazy! Why are you still trying to protect him?”
“I’m his wife,” Alex said. She turned to Ed and took hold of his hands, cradling them gently. “Don’t worry, Ed. It’ll be okay. Beckett lost everything, too, and look at him now.”
“Yeah, sitting pretty in a dive that’s one inspection from a wrecking ball.”
She ignored him. “You have to promise me you won’t say anything about this to anyone.”
“But they might be able to help—”
“Not Ros. Not Beckett. And definitely not Jan.”
Her blue eyes locked with his, pleading. Her closeness, the heat of her skin on his, was tantalising. He would have done anything to make her happy.
Alex took his silence for the agreement it was. She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you.”
“It goes no further,” Ed said. His face felt warm; he was blushing like a schoolkid. “As long as none of it does. Because if I find out Adam’s lumbered you with anything else—anything at all—” He cut off the sentence, realising how pointless it was, issuing threats. Instead he said, “There has to be something you’ll let me do for you.”
Alex considered the question, then gestured over to the corner. “You could take those albums on your way out and bin them. And the frames.”
“You’re not keeping them?”
“Why would I want to keep them, when it was a lie all along?”
“Whatever else Adam did,” Ed said softly, “he did love you.” He forced himself to meet her eyes, knowing she needed the reassurance. A part of him, a voice he tried to silence, actually wanted her to hate Adam. That other Ed took glee in kicking his rival, when he couldn’t kick back. He didn’t care about fair fights. He whispered his objection: Alex didn’t need more reasons to protect a man who’d won her love, her trust, and then exploited her.
And yet Ed knew he had to give it to her. That was love. The kind he lived with, beating a secret dance in his heart. The kind that Adam—serious, responsible Adam—had known nothing about.
“But he lied to me,” Alex said. “Why would you do that to someone you love?”
Ed didn’t have an answer to give her.
“I wanted to apologise,” Ros had said when the door opened and Beckett appeared behind it. “For earlier.”
He’d regarded her with suspicion, working out if she was spoiling for another fight, before letting her in. There was no sign of Christa: not even a trace of her perfume. Ros had tortured herself, seeking out her presence, marking its scope. Was it her, plumping up cushions like ripening fruit? How long had he spent with her, trawling department stores, in search of them?
Ros knew one side of him. Christa, it seemed, had got the other.
She rarely came to the flat, and the last time she’d been here the revamp had been only half-complete. Her eyes roamed the cracks beneath the gloss; the grape explosion in the hall. Beckett noticed her interest as he re-entered the lounge, glass of water in hand.
“You like it?”
“It’s nice,” Ros decided. She sat gingerly on the sofa, afraid to disturb the cushions. “Maybe a bit dark.”
“I suppose I should have expected that,” Beckett said, “from the woman whose favourite colour is fluorescent yellow.”
Ros rolled her eyes as he passed her the glass. “Why does everyone assume that?”
“You had that hideous car...”
“I loved that car! And actually, my favourite colour is green.”
“Mine too,” Beckett said with a grin, tugging at his sleeve. He’d changed into a mint-coloured shirt that reminded Ros of one he’d worn in the days before the Bureau, a shade she’d always thought suited him. She wondered if the choice brought their past to mind for him, the way it did for her. Running around London, no safety net, no rules. No relationships broken, perhaps beyond repair.
Beckett’s expression turned serious, detecting the change in mood. “You’re feeling better, then?”
The answer was too complicated for words. Ros settled for a nod.
“I know it’s not my place...” Beckett began. He barrelled on, not waiting for confirmation. “I’ve been worried about you. Since the—the wedding, I mean. You haven’t seemed like yourself.”
She noticed a bottle of Scotch on the table under the window, a near-empty glass beside it. “Drinking in the middle of the day, Nick?”
He sat down next to her, at a careful distance, obscuring her view. “Look, Ros, about the wedding...”
He blinked. Let it pass. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Ed thought I ought to tell you before you found out from someone else.”
“I’m glad you did,” said Ros.
“Really?” Beckett said, sounding sceptical.
“And I’m sorry. You caught me off guard. I overreacted. It won’t happen again.”
“Is Alex ever going to forgive me?”
“Alex is a survivor. She’ll be fine. She knows we can’t put our lives on hold forever.”
“Exactly!” he said, seizing on it. “That’s what I was trying to explain to Ed. I’m not trying to be insensitive. I’m just...”
“Moving on.” Ros took a sip of the water, keeping it casual. “You know, it could have been me and you.”
Beckett didn’t argue. He nodded, looking sombre. Had he wondered, too, how far their relationship might have gone? Ros hadn’t just missed the boat with him: she’d pushed it out to sea, and set it on fire.
“Aren’t you ever going to forgive me, Nick?”
“Ros—” he started.
“Because you haven’t,” she said, cutting off whatever denial he’d been about to make. “And I understand. I do. I regret what happened every single day. I wish Terry had never tricked his way into my flat that night. I wish you’d saved him. And I wish... I wish I hadn’t told you to go.”
Beckett seemed surprised. They’d never talked about any of it, an oversight prompted by mutual pride and bitterness. It had become progressively harder to correct, as the months had passed. They discussed little more meaningful than ill-fated weddings; or, to Ed’s eternal bafflement, the weather.
“So do I,” he said softly. His expression hardened, any trace of tenderness draining away. “But what’s done is done.”
Ros took a lengthy gulp of the water, cradling the glass for reassurance.
“I didn’t just come here to apologise,” she said. “There was something I wanted to discuss with you.”
Beckett settled back, crushing the cushions. As he waited for her to speak, Ros’s nerve failed her.
“Oh, never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
His eyes twinkled. “It obviously does, if Ros Henderson can admit she’s wrong and drive all the way over here to say it.”
“I wanted to talk about what happened when we were kidnapped,” Ros blurted out. She paused, centring herself. But it made sense. It was kind of what she had come here to talk about, in a roundabout way.
Beckett didn’t answer, at first. He shifted in discomfort and hung his head, displaying an intense fascination with the floor. One of his eyes swivelled upwards: the flat above, occupied by Christa. Ros resisted an urge to guffaw. It was typical. They had their first real conversation in months, and he was worrying about whether Christa could hear it.
“We thought we were going to die,” he said defensively.
“Which justifies you pretending it didn’t happen?”
“I’m not pretending, Ros!” He lowered his voice, hands making a guilty dart to his hair. “Look—this isn’t about us, anymore. There are other people involved now. You’ve got Graeme; I’ve got Christa—”
“Who you ran back to without so much as a second glance,” Ros said, registering that he’d mentioned Graeme in the same breath as Christa. Did he actually believe they were dating?
“What did you expect me to do, Ros? We barely got started the first time. And I didn’t plan what happened. You were there and I was there and it just...did. It’s not like it meant anything...”
He looked over at her, waiting for something. “Did it?”
The room went very quiet, and very still. “No,” she said.
Beckett’s face twisted in an expression Ros thought was relief. Suddenly she was glad she hadn’t told him. At least now she knew how he really felt about her, without duty getting in the way. How could she have told him, when she’d barely had chance to absorb it herself? It would have complicated things even more; have been another stupid, impulsive thing to have done.
For now at least, it would have to be her secret.
As they sat in silence, each of them lost in their thoughts, the front door clicked open.
“Ni-ick! Come and look what—”
Christa’s voice trailed as she skipped into the lounge. Beckett jumped from the couch like she’d wired it to the mains. Ros donned her sunniest smile.
“Ros! I wasn’t expecting to see you here...”
“Came to offer my congratulations,” Ros said. Shame stabbed unexpectedly at her gut; a sudden conviction that Christa deserved better. She stood and hugged her before she had chance to protest. “I hope you’ll be very happy together.”
“Oh, that’s really sweet of you, Ros. Isn’t that nice, Nick?”
Beckett nodded, wordless, hands stuffed in his pockets as if he was afraid they’d betray him.
“Looking for a dress?” Ros asked, noticing the glossy magazines stuffed under Christa’s arm.
“Gathering a few ideas. Colour schemes... Flower arrangements... Different themes...”
“Themes?” said Beckett.
“Like fairy tales,” said Christa. “Or butterflies.”
Beckett made a sound in his throat, like one of them was trapped in it.
“Pastels are so pretty at weddings, Nick. You could wear that pink tie I bought you...”
“Very fetching, I’m sure,” Ros said. She spied Christa’s bare left hand. “Hasn’t he got you a ring yet?”
Christa’s cheeks went a non-pastel shade of salmon. “Nick’s giving me his mother’s engagement ring. It’s at the jeweller’s, being resized.”
Ros turned to Beckett, squashing down the knowledge that it had to be serious, if he was willing to gift something so precious. “That’s a lovely idea, Beckett,” she said, and meant it. “I never had you down as such a romantic.”
He grimaced, and Ros realised he thought she was taunting him.
“Well,” he said, voice stiff. “When you meet the right woman...”
Christa cooed in the background. Ros smiled, brushing off the sting. Her anger cooled deeper, into resignation. She didn’t want to sink into backbiting and recriminations, not now. He’d made it perfectly clear that he no longer had any feelings for her, regardless of what had happened between them all those weeks ago. He was happy where he was, and she did want him to be happy. Both of them knew how fleeting it could be.
She walked up close to Beckett and kissed him on the cheek. He closed his eyes for an instant at the touch of her lips.
With a nod of goodbye to Christa, she walked out of the lounge and into the hallway. It was shrouded in shadow, as straight as a one-way arrow. Ros began the journey down it, her steps steady and her eyes stubbornly dry; recalling that the forecast had, one day soon, made a promise of sun.
Much to Ed’s relief, life at the Bureau was returning to normal. Jan had wrestled their caseload back from the Hive, ignoring dark mutterings from Dent about merging the two and being done with it. They weren’t exactly snowed under—quite the opposite, as of today—but more important was the change in atmosphere. Two months on, it was as if their enforced sabbatical had never happened.
No one had dared mention weddings at first. But as time had passed, the tension had diminished. Ed had accepted an invite to be Beckett’s best man, and Alex had passed dress design tips to Christa. Though it had once been unthinkable, she and Ros had forged a tentative friendship. With Christa and Graeme vying for her attention, Ros was the most popular lunch date in the Bureau.
Ed had commandeered her office, with Alex on a break of her own: a mysterious call to the Hive. He sat there, feet on the desk, watching Jan and Beckett, at war next door. Maybe it was about Beckett’s tie. He’d rejected colour altogether: today’s was funereal black.
Ed couldn’t take all the credit for the resumption of operations. The wedding was a blip on Alex’s radar, with Adam’s lies to deal with. He’d thought Ros would be the hardest to talk round, but he’d been wrong. She’d been impervious to his teasing about Graeme, but the rest she’d offered on a platter: told Ed that the past was in the past, and it had to stay there. Jan seemed more upset with Beckett, now, than either of them.
He tapped at Ros’s locked PC. He’d mucked with her answer message once, by guessing the passcode. He wasn’t sure what she’d use, these days. Not the reg plate of her first ever car, that was for sure. The knowledge, or absence of it, felt like drifting in space, his tether frayed to a snap.
Beckett had bested Jan. He was staring at Ros’s office, ever vigilant. Probably checking for Graeme, having cited six sections of the Secrets Act that civilian visits were breaching. His eyes landed on Ed, watching him. He snapped them away, stomping off.
Ed moved his gaze to Alex’s empty desk. He refused to imagine that sharing a secret had opened the door for him...and yet. Hope, the last thing in the box. He had a niggling doubt about his willingness to keep schtum, and what it said about him. He was no spectator, but here he was. Sitting on his bum, doing what he knew was wrong—and all because the right thing meant risking the little he had with Alex.
He felt his feet being shoved off the desk. Beckett stole the spot, and Ed's view. He readied himself for a lecture, about saving the spying for the day job, but Beckett had other things on his mind.
“What’s this about you and Alex?” he demanded.
“No idea what you’re talking about, mate.”
“There’s an email going round the department. Apparently you’re living together.”
“Should’ve skipped to the bottom,” Ed said. “Did you know Jan’s got a stash of blackmail material, taped to her sock drawer?..”
Beckett folded his arms, undeterred. Ed wondered, not for the first time, who was leaking the ins and outs of their private lives. He had suspects—Angela, from central ops, and the blonde on reception—but proving it took motivation. His scandal-free existence rarely got a mention, next to the soap opera of his colleagues.
“She’s staying in the spare room,” he said. It was futile to pretend, now the phantom gossip had got a sniff.
“The spare room, eh?”
“You know, I remember having this conversation with you, Beckett. When you were staying with Ros, you remember that, don’t you?”
“There was nothing going on then...”
“Exactly.” He straightened himself and swivelled the chair to face Beckett. The tables had turned. He kind of liked it. “Alex is having a few cash flow problems. Something to do with Adam’s estate. I’m helping out till she gets herself sorted.”
“It took months to sort things after Mum died. Not helped by Dad doing a runner after the funeral, of course...”
“So you know what it’s like. Do me a favour and don’t go pestering her about it.”
“I might be able to help,” Beckett argued. “I had money trouble of my own not so long ago.”
“Your own? Your first fiancée ripped you off to turn some loser from the pub into poundshop Jagger.”
“Thank you so much for the reminder, Ed...”
“This is nothing like that,” he said, knowing it wasn’t true. Beckett knew precisely what it felt like, to be deceived by someone he’d loved. “A few teething problems,” he added, thoughts returning, for a fleeting moment, to Sasha.
Thought you’d finally grown up.
If your idea of grown up’s thieving and killing, think I’d rather stay a child, thanks all the same.
“Alex doesn’t need you sticking your beak in,” he said, wondering if Sasha would haunt him forever. “She’s got enough on her plate at the moment...and so have you.”
Beckett went rigid. Ed rued the need to spoil one of his increasingly rare good moods. He knew better than to draw him into an awkward conversation.
“So how’s the wedding planning going?” he asked, doubling down anyway. No risk, no reward. It had governed his every move, once upon a time.
“The invites have gone to the printers,” Beckett said. “They should be ready to go by the end of the week.”
“You’ve decided on a date, then?”
“December the 21st.”
Ed glanced at Ros’s calendar. “But it’s the middle of November now.”
“Full marks, Ed,” Beckett said sarcastically.
Ed whistled to himself. “Christmas wedding, eh? Romantic. So soon, though?.. Is Christa worried you’ll change your mind or something?”
Beckett glared at him. “If you must know, they had a cancellation. It’s the only date we could get this year.”
“Most people would wait till next year.”
“Christa doesn’t want to wait.”
“Ah-ha,” said Ed.
Beckett set his jaw in defiance, realising he’d fallen into a trap. “I thought you were all right about the wedding?”
“I’m happy as Larry,” Ed said. He looked at Beckett pointedly, old instincts singing again. “How about you?”
Beckett tuned it out. “Then why do you keep, I don’t know—baiting me about it all the time?”
“Come on, my friend. I like a joke, you know that.”
“Me getting married is hardly a laughing matter!”
“Not to you, maybe,” Ed said, sniggering.
“Oh grow up, Ed.”
The words landed like acid. Ed’s cheer melted clean away, exposing the rawest of nerves. He drew himself up, temper rising. But this was not the time for him to lose it, because Beckett had hit a sore spot.
“If you’re happy, Beckett,” he said coolly, “then I’m happy.”
He stared him out for a long, tense moment. Beckett stared right back. The guy was stubborn as a bull, always had been. He wouldn’t back down. He never did. It wasn’t worth it, and Ed let him have it. He looked away first; sat himself safely back down.
“Look, mate. On top of Adam dying and you guys almost following him—this had potential to split this place apart. For a while there I wasn’t sure we’d recover from it.”
Beckett said nothing, which experience told him was not a good sign. “You had confetti in your head,” Ed continued, driving it home. “Someone had to think about Alex and Ros. About the repercussions...”
A scowl gathered at the edges of Beckett’s brow. Ed ignored the warning. “But hey. Status back to quo. Ros and Alex are okay. Which means I am, too.”
Beckett nodded. His lips drew into a thin, mocking line. “The Bureau’s very own moral guardian, sitting on his high horse, picking up the slack.”
“It’s not like that, Beckett...”
“Oh give me a break,” Beckett snapped. He slid off the desk and stalked out of the office, into his own. A door slammed with such force that Ed actually flinched. It felt like the house was coming down around him, right when he’d finished fixing it.
The keyboard on the desk was rattling. Ed stilled it with a finger. Sliding the Bureau from hard-won harmony back into chaos had not been the plan. He wasn’t sure Ros or Alex, content as they seemed, were strong enough to stand an argument if Beckett chose to trigger one. It might tip them over the edge, and back to where they’d started. Taking the Bureau straight back with them.
“Khavelak,” he said, out loud. It meant careless in Khazbek. Or at least...he thought it did.
Carrying two cups to the window table of a coffee house, Coral Henderson watched in amusement as Ros kicked off her shoes, tossing them aside with gusto.
“What? My feet are killing me.”
“You drive everywhere,” Coral said, sitting down and passing a cup across. “They’re not used to walking.”
“They’re swelling up.” She pinched a cheek in displeasure, having glanced in the mirror that morning and convinced herself they were rounder than they used to be. “Much like the rest of me.”
Coral nodded knowingly. “Water retention. That happened to me when I was carrying you.”
Ros fought a desire to check for her colleagues, lurking nearby. Her mum was the only person she’d let in on her secret. It was superstition, and worry that Beckett would work out the truth, that had kept her quiet. The ever-present nausea might have eased, but she’d abandoned tight trouser suits for a wardrobe that was more forgiving. She knew she couldn’t keep it hidden much longer.
“You need to get more rest,” Coral continued. “Surely work wouldn’t mind if you sat down occasionally, instead of haring around all day.”
“Mind?” Ros said. “Jan’s had me on house arrest all week, debugging the lifts. Very restful, yes, but a complete waste of my time. They are not our responsibility.
“Ed and Alex were the ones haring around. They were on assignment in the Channel Tunnel. They went sightseeing in Calais, after they’d finished.”
“Finished stopping someone blowing it up?”
“Mum, you know I can’t tell you that...”
“It’s a dangerous job,” Coral said. “You don’t have to tell me.”
Ros had to give her that one. She’d almost died twice in the last six months alone—not that her family knew about the second time, since that was classified too. If that wasn’t a sign that she should hurry up and get on with her life while she was lucky enough to have it, she didn’t know what was.
“It’s my job, and I happen to like it. I’m not giving it up, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“I’m not suggesting anything. Maybe you should ask your boyfriend what he thinks.”
Ros smiled tightly. “I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said, not for the first time.
A useful cover for awkward questions, she almost said, driven to it by endless nagging. She felt horribly guilty about being so calculating, but it had to be done. She’d never flat-out lied about their friendship, but that hadn’t stopped the others from reaching the wrong conclusion. Ros had chosen not to correct them. Maybe it was a lie by omission, but it kept her in control. It protected her from any more heartbreak: as well as Beckett, and Christa, along with him.
Christa wasn’t the monster she’d painted her as in her darkest moments. She was a normal, innocent girl. The thought of how much it would hurt her, to find out what had happened, made Ros wake in cold sweats at night. The biggest crime she’d committed was falling for Beckett, and that gave them more in common than Ros had appreciated. Whether Beckett appreciated that too, she had no idea. She kept as far out of his way as their jobs allowed.
“I told you. Graeme is a friend.”
“Does he know that?”
“Of course he does,” Ros said. Her plan to make it up to him was proceeding very nicely.
Coral blew on her tea. “I won’t lie to you, Roslyn. This situation makes me very uncomfortable. I wish you would tell me who the father is.”
“Would it make you feel better if I said it was some guy I picked up in a bar?”
“He’s not a stranger,” Ros promised. “I’ve known him for a long time.” It was as far as she was willing to go. Her mum was a traditional woman. She’d be marching down to the Bureau if she found out, demanding Beckett marry Ros instead of Christa.
“Does he know?”
She shook her head, dizzied by déjà vu. “No. No one does, apart from you. For goodness’ sake, Mum... I thought we were having a drink, not an interrogation.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“He wouldn’t be interested,” Ros said, which really was a lie. Beckett might have had no feelings left for her, but she was sure he’d rush to her side, the second he found out. Being abandoned by his own father made that a certainty. He’d be there, on sufferance, if he knew. But it would risk the happiness he’d found with Christa, if he did.
Coral took a delicate sip from her cup, shaking her head. “I’m delighted to be getting a grandchild. But I have to admit, this is not how I would have wished it to happen.
“In fact...there are times I wish you’d stuck with Channing.”
This part was new. Ros almost spat out her drink. “Really?”
“A good-looking millionaire. What mother wouldn’t wish that for her daughter?”
“I would wish her someone she loved,” Ros said.
“Or Nick. Now he was handsome, too. And very charming.”
She grinned. “Yes, and doesn’t he know it.”
“He took it very hard when you disappeared,” Coral recalled. “That business with Terry...such a waste.”
Ros bit her lip, uncomfortable with the frank assessment. “What happened to Terry was a tragedy.”
“The tragedy was he almost dragged you to the grave, right alongside him.” Coral fixed her with serious eyes. “You have no idea what that was like for me. I hope you never find out. If I knew you had someone looking after you...”
“I can look after myself,” Ros said, leaning back to escape the scrutiny. That penetrating gaze made her a little paranoid. “And I’ve got plenty of friends at the Bureau.”
“So why on earth haven’t you told them yet?”
“It’s none of their business,” she said tetchily. “And I’m sick of being treated like an invalid all the time. First it was the operation, then it was the...the aftermath. Things are finally starting to feel normal. I don’t want them to treat me any differently.”
Coral laughed. “No matter what happens to you, you think you can bluster on as normal. You think your feet are aching now? Believe me, there will come a time when you’ll be glad your colleagues are so considerate.”
“And then there’s Nick,” Ros continued. She hadn’t meant to bring him up. The slip made her flush more than the name.
Coral regarded her carefully. It felt like talking to Simon. The two of them watched her like hawks, waiting for a giveaway; reminding her, incessantly, of hurts best forgotten. Roland, Terry, Adam...Beckett. The months she’d spent, moping around the office after a man she’d pushed away: what a shadow of herself she must have seemed.
“Beckett. He’s getting married.”
“Good luck to him,” Coral said, seeming not to suspect a thing. “I don’t understand why this is stopping you from saying something, though...”
Ros edged the subject onto safer ground. “The Bureau has been through enough this year. It was a real shock for Alex at first: the idea of another wedding, after what happened to Adam...” She realised too late she hadn’t mentioned Ed. Ed, who was so busy and take-charge now that it made her both proud, and somehow sad. He was deputy Bureau chief in all but name, and didn’t seem to realise.
“I suppose I don’t want to make it any harder for her. For any of them...”
“Beyond anything, there are health and safety issues to consider,” Coral said firmly. “I almost lost you once already this year, and I never want it to happen again. You are not to put yourself or this baby at risk because you’re worried about upsetting your friends.”
“Okay,” Ros said, conceding with a heavy sigh. It was too sensible a point to argue with, and even that had grown exhausting. “Okay. You win. I’ll tell them. First chance I get.”
Coral inclined her head. Ros gave a shake of hers, catching the meaning loud and clear.
“But that’s all I’m saying.”
“Even to me?”
“I’m a grown woman, Mum. I’m allowed some secrets.”
“Not these kinds of secrets, Ros,” Coral said, shaking her head gravely. “Not these kinds of secrets.”
“I spoke with Dent earlier,” Jan informed Alex. She’d trapped her in the lift as it wheezed to the heights of the Bureau, forcing the conversation.
“That must have been entertaining,” Alex said, eyeing the escape hatch.
“He told me the Hive is pursuing legal proceedings against you to recover the money Adam stole.”
Alex sighed. There was no point in denying it, whatever the location. DOIC knew everything, and thanks to Dent, she knew more than she should. Being stuck in a box together must have helped them bond. They were surprisingly free with classified information, for two people who supposedly despised each other.
“Your hair looks nice,” she said. “Have you changed your colour?”
Jan shot her a glance that said nice try. She was far too much of an old hand to be sidetracked by flattery. “He also informed me you’re refusing to pay it back.”
“I’ve been through all this with Ed, and my lawyer. I don’t have it. It’s not as if he stole it to feed starving children. He spent every penny of it.”
And more besides, she added to herself. But that was another conversation altogether, and one she definitely wouldn’t be having with Jan.
They stepped into the ice-blue lobby. Alex spotted Beckett in his office, Ed holed up next door in Ros’s. They were between cases, once again: there should have been banter flying between them, rehearsal for the speeches. But Beckett was on the phone, while Ed heaped abuse on a joystick, wired to his laptop. They were sitting with their backs turned, studiously ignoring each other. It might have been a wall between them, and not glass panels.
“It beggars belief,” Jan said, “that the Hive would pursue you for recompense for a crime you didn’t commit.”
“Did you tell that to Dent?”
“I’ve made my thoughts on the matter quite clear. I’ll escalate it all the way to Number 10, if I have to. I refuse to let them get away with this behaviour.”
“It’s not their fault,” Alex said as she stopped by the stand, hanging up her coat.
“I’m well aware you chose to guarantee the debt, Alex—against my advice, might I remind you—but surely...”
Jan frowned. Alex headed to her station. She put down her bag, not ready to consider its contents, and took her seat, with a glance at Ed. She would have bounced in and shared her lunch with him, but he didn't look in the mood. He seemed to be taking a fierce pleasure in whatever shoot-‘em-up he was playing. Alex wondered who he was imagining as his target.
“That’s not in dispute,” Jan said, following her over. “But still...”
“He was nothing but a common criminal, Jan. I should never have married him.”
Jan’s frown lingered. She hovered next to Alex as she hunted through her desk for her sandwich. Alex tore open the cellophane and ripped into it with her teeth, chewing viciously.
“Blaming Adam is not the answer here, Alex.”
“Why not?” Alex asked, between mouthfuls. Her grief for Adam had altered shape after learning what he’d been up to, behind her back. That he wasn’t here for her to rage at, unable to explain, was hardest to deal with. It was a different kind of grief that shadowed her now, one that cut more keenly than before. She was mourning the man she’d loved and thought she’d known. It wasn’t for Adam at all.
When Dent’s secretary had emailed, reminding her his effects were still waiting for collection, she’d been in two minds about it. She’d given up his photos, donated his clothes: why would she want whatever he’d kept in his desk? It was a nagging voice in her head—sounding a bit like Ed—that had led her there; urging her to force her head from the sand, and get herself moving. She didn’t believe Adam’s things would offer up a clue. If he’d wanted the money for something other than her, if he’d been in deeper with Stefano’s schemes than it appeared, she didn’t want to know.
Or so she kept telling herself.
Jan was busy wrestling with the question. “Well, because—”
“I do still love him, if that’s what you’re thinking. I still miss him.” She toed the edge of her bag, overcome by a powerful wave of longing. “But mostly I hate him, for leaving me in such a mess.”
“Dent seems to think you’re fighting a losing battle,” Jan said after a second, shifting the subject back to her favourite bête noire.
“I’m not challenging them on repayment,” Alex said. “They need to balance their books somehow. What I am challenging is their refusal to offer any compensation.”
“Because Adam died at your wedding and not in active service?”
“He died as a result of someone extorting information from the Hive. He might not have been on duty, but the Hive was still directly responsible for his death.”
“I see,” Jan said, in a voice that gave nothing away.
“I’m offering to repay the money I owe out of the compensation they should be giving me,” Alex went on, warming to the theme. “I think it’s reasonable enough. It’s their fault I lost my husband.”
“And if they don’t agree?”
She spread her hands, affecting unconcern. “Maybe I’ll go to the press. ‘Government hounds penniless widow’. That’s going to look really good for them, isn’t it?”
“The Official Secrets Act...”
“I don’t give a damn about the Secrets Act,” snapped Alex. She looked away, collecting herself. It wouldn’t help, to alienate Jan.
“All these things cost money,” Jan said, unmoved. “I could authorise an advance, if it would help...”
“That’s kind of you, Jan, but it’s not necessary. This is my problem. I’ll deal with it on my own.”
“You said you’ve discussed it with Ed?”
Alex smiled. She’d seen the email about the two of them, which meant Jan had, too. Since the anonymous gossip had no idea of her predicament—or the contents of Jan’s drawers—it amused her no end that people thought she’d jump into bed with Ed, so soon after Adam’s death.
“Ed’s been very helpful,” she said. She felt ashamed for dismissing him as a one-note joker, back after their date. Ed had been mature, considerate and a better friend than she could have hoped for. He’d opened his door to her when she’d accepted an offer on Adam’s flat, and respected her wishes about his debt.
Ed looked like he was wrestling with a bear, whenever the subject came up. But he’d taken his vow not to mention it quite literally. He’d expressed his doubts in a very different way: telling wistful tales over pizza, about the things he, Ros and Beckett had got up to in their Gizmos days. Each one centred on a fraudster or thief who ended up beaten or, disturbingly often, dead; hoist by their own greed.
He couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d come straight out and said that cheats never prospered, honesty always paid, and by the way: wasn’t it amazing what Ros could do with a computer and a credit file?
“Yes,” Jan said, “I do believe the crises we’ve been through recently have been the making of him.”
“Will you ask him to stand in as Bureau chief, when Beckett goes on honeymoon?”
The last word brought a scowl to Jan’s face. Alex was intrigued by her refusal to accept the inevitable. She had a soft spot for Beckett; she should have been proud as punch. Alex guessed it was for her benefit that she’d been so dogged in her opposition. She couldn’t see why else Jan would take against him marrying Christa, who was ditzy, to put it politely, and definitely no Ros, but a nice enough woman. The entire Bureau had hoped Ros and Beckett would work it out, of course. But it was clearly never going to happen.
“Ed is the natural choice,” Jan agreed. “And he has the experience. But since Beckett has yet to request any leave, I have to assume he isn’t taking one.”
“Oh, I’m sure that’s not true. He probably thinks it’s too busy at the moment for him to up and leave for a fortnight.”
“Look around you, Alex,” she said tartly. “Too busy?”
“I’m sure he has his reasons...”
“Or perhaps work is simply preferable to the prospect of married life,” said Jan. She watched Beckett for a moment, barking at his hapless caller. Her expression was unreadable.
The lifts had been up and down, to use Ed’s expression, for weeks. They’d gone offline again a few days ago. Four floors beneath them on the stairwell, Alex had heard Jan, going off at Beckett: not unlike the explosives he was tracking. Christa’s name had floated down to her, Ros’s too, and more confusingly, Julia Fairchild’s. What Jan thought her now-divorced goddaughter had to do with Beckett’s wedding, Alex had no idea.
She kicked the bag beneath her desk, out of sight. As Jan walked away, Alex glanced over at Beckett’s office; wondering what it was she was seeing, that the rest of them weren’t.
Ed’s spat with Beckett had led him down a path there was no walking back from. The wrong thing done for the right reason was still the wrong thing, however many flowers you dressed it up in. Alex was dead set on the martyr act, and the hints Ed had been dropping weren’t getting through. He didn’t like the idea of breaking a promise, but he couldn’t sit back and watch any longer.
No risk, no reward. It was time to expose Adam’s secrets, and live with the consequences. Be khavelak, and trust where it led him.
Tonight, that was to Ros. He was in desperate need of her help, and a sounding board. It was crazy—that he’d had to pluck up more courage to ask a friend to dinner, than to ask a girl on a date. The smile that had lit her face when she’d said yes had felt like the sun coming out, after too long behind clouds.
Alex was at her mum’s, across the river. It felt like the clock was ticking, even so. When Ros arrived he got straight down to business, describing Alex’s problem and its black-eyed cause. Her eyes were wide in horror, right through his story, and beyond.
“I thought Adam loved Alex. Why would he do this to her?”
“I don’t doubt he loved her,” Ed said. He picked a bottle of white and took it to the sofa with two glasses, clinking at every step. “I’m starting to think he just got greedy.”
He filled up his glass, then moved on to hers. Ros put a hand over it to stop him.
“I don’t understand what he wanted all that money for.”
Ed’s very first question, echoed back at him. Perhaps they weren’t as disconnected as it had begun to feel. “He told Alex she was out of his league. He wanted to impress her.”
“Appeal to her ego, more like.” She winced at the cynicism, right along with Ed. “Awful as that sounds...”
“But let’s assume it’s true. Even if he wanted the money for something else: both the Hive money, and the rest... Why not shower the woman you love with gifts? It’s a drop in the pond, with that many Ks floating about.”
“But was he genuinely trying to prove himself worthy of her? Or trying to cover his tracks?”
“Maybe both,” Ed said. “Frame it as a crime of passion, and no one bothers digging deeper: especially the fiancée you’re desperate to keep. Love makes you do stupid things. All of us know that...”
Ros cocked her head. “What if he was more involved with Stefano than we thought? Adam could have been funding him all along.”
“Why march him out of his wedding at gunpoint, if he’s already on the team?” Ed took a chug of his wine. He’d already had half a glass, calming nerves that had once been made of steel. It had done little to sharpen his brain. “Oh, I don’t know. There’s a whole other story here, Ros—it’s not like he stole it to invest in Kituman platinum. But Alex doesn’t want to know. Out of respect, I haven’t pushed it.”
“It’s always possible he was being blackmailed,” Ros said. “By Wymark and Zephyr, maybe?”
“But they didn’t want his money. All they wanted was CAT Flap. Which I guess leads us back to greed.”
“There must be some cash left somewhere.”
“Nothing but loose change at the back of the sofa. Guy had expensive tastes.” He dug out a folder, and passed it to Ros. He’d stashed it under a cushion earlier, when Alex walked in.
“I went back to Michaelson’s PA. It took some digging, but it turns out Adam funnelled the loot to two separate accounts: his personal one, via the trust fund to make it look legit, and one that was registered in the old Eastern Alliance. It was a tax haven for a hot second, before the neighbours sent in the troops. The Revenue might have had a bit to say, but Wymark and Zephyr either didn’t spot it, or didn’t care. It’s not like you can blackmail someone over a savings account—however sketchy it is...
“Adam’s account was where the Hive money ended up. It paid for the goodies, plus the wedding. The other was in a name I can’t trace, and it’s a ghost: shut down on the day of the wedding. He made thirty-two separate payments to it, across a five-month period.”
“It doesn’t seem like the Adam we knew.”
“We didn’t know him,” Ed reminded her. He looked at her, feeling more positive than he had for weeks. He’d always been a glass half-full sort of guy, until events had knocked it out of him. “So what do you reckon? There’s something you can do for Alex, right?”
“Of course,” Ros said, seeming insulted that it came with a question mark. “But Ed... Altering these kinds of records is a serious offence.”
“And defrauding your future wife isn’t?”
“What does Alex think about this?”
“Same as me,” Ed said. “She wants it all erased. Over and done with.” Ros frowned, clearly not buying it. He’d known her too long to expect to fool her. He tugged awkwardly on his ear lobe. “All right, so I haven’t exactly told her...”
“She wanted me to keep it quiet and let her get on with it,” Ed said. “And I’ve tried, Ros. I have. But that scumbag’s in his box, and he’s still destroying her life. And she’s letting him get away with it!”
“I know how you feel about Alex,” Ros began. He tried to keep his face straight. Of course she knew: they’d been going through the same thing, not so long ago. “But you can’t go sticking your oar in and expect her to thank you. You might make things worse.”
Ed was already haunted by the worst case scenario. If Alex objected strongly enough to his betrayal, the price would be their friendship. Losing her to another man had been bad enough; losing her because of something he’d done would be even harder to stomach. There’d been nothing so calculated about him cancelling on her for Sasha. The past had a powerful pull. The only certain thing about the future, he’d discovered, was the pain that was waiting.
“They can’t get much worse,” he said, shoving it aside. “Look real good for us, won’t it: Alex and Beckett both going bust, a couple of years either side? People are really going to trust us to handle things for them, when we can’t even handle a purse string...”
“You forgot me,” Ros said quietly. “Five million pounds to pay back, from royalties I might never earn. You’re probably the most solvent part of the Bureau.”
“Nah. I bet Jan’s got a bit stashed away. She’s got all kinds of irons in the fire that we don’t know about.”
Her eyes lit up, enjoying the gossip. “She was twenty minutes late to a briefing last week. Jan is never late. And she had her hair done this morning, two weeks ahead of schedule. It’s normally every six weeks, like clockwork...”
“Is this a woman thing,” said Ed, “or did you hack her diary again?”
“I reckon she’s got a boyfriend.”
“If you’re talking about last Tuesday,” he said, “she was at a breakfast meeting with Dent.” Ros crooked an eyebrow. “Oh come on. No way. Dent’s a married man, isn’t he? He’s like her number one enemy. Jan and that puffed-up old...” He groaned. “I’ll never get that image out of my head now, Ros, you know that, don’t you?”
Ros chuckled in triumph. Ed tried to drown the laughter, gurgling up his throat, with a gulp of wine. One look at Ros and it came out through his nose instead. The uptick in mood had thawed something inside him. He felt a warm glow of contentment. However far apart his friends sometimes felt, it was all still there, hidden underneath.
“All right,” Ros said, when she could keep a straight face. “I’ll do it. Against my better judgement, I might add.”
“Ros, you don’t know what this means to me...” He put down the glass, unwinding tense fingers. “I’m sorry I sprung it on you like this. It’s not the only reason I asked you round, I swear.” He looked over, preparing a confession. “Things have been weird, lately. With all of us. And I guess I wanted...I really wanted to see you.”
Ros bumped her shoulder to his. “I wanted to see you, too.”
Ed smiled at her. A helpless, soppy smile. Ros smiled right back.
“You know,” she said, “when you asked me here tonight, I thought it had something to do with you and Alex.”
“We’re friends,” Ed insisted. “Whatever the latest email says.”
“And how long are you going to stay that way?”
“Ros, she lost her husband...”
“And now she’s found out some very unpalatable things about him. Meanwhile, you’ve been there for her every step of the way.”
“I’d never take advantage of Alex, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Ros said. “But be careful, Ed.”
That word again. His own personal nemesis. “It’s my middle name. When it comes to Beckett, anyway... I thought he was going to lamp me earlier.”
Ros frowned. Ed sighed. “I cracked one about the wedding. He didn’t appreciate it.” He shook it off. “You know they’ve set a date? Next month. The 21st.”
She sucked in a breath. “You don’t think she’s—”
“Beckett’s not that stupid,” Ed said.
Ros smiled faintly. “Why the rush, then?”
“Which is pretty much what I said.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. He shook his head as he remembered Beckett’s furious reaction to his teasing. It had soured things between them for the rest of the day. Ed had clocked off early to work off his frustration in the gym, a safe distance from his friend, and his many issues.
“So,” he said finally. “What were you up to while I was putting my foot in it with Beckett?”
Ros made a face. “Would you believe—shopping?”
“With your new bestie?” Ed whistled. “How things change.”
Her eyes widened. “Who, Christa? No, it was my mum... I don’t like Christa that much, Ed.”
“Not so long ago I thought you’d have ripped her hair out as soon as looked at her.”
“You said it yourself. Things change.” She hesitated. “Actually, a lot’s changed—or it’s going to. I really was glad you asked me round tonight, Ed. I had an ulterior motive, too. There’s something I wanted to tell you...”
“Oh yeah?” He picked up his glass. “Not getting that hair cut, are you?”
Ros said something. It sounded a lot like I’m pregnant. Ed coughed his wine back out. Bubbles foamed in the glass, as the rest tickled down his throat.
“I should have told you sooner,” Ros said, winding one dark curl tight around her finger.
Sooner? He glanced at her, wondering if he’d been too caught up with Alex and her problems to notice. Ros had been a bit off recently, but they’d all put it down to the surgery. She’d changed up her look, now he thought about it. Lots of loose tops. Jan had complimented her on one, which was both unusual, and downright suspicious. Did Jan do fashion now too, in her downtime?..
The shock was sending his thoughts to some very dark places. Ed pulled himself back to base, realising Ros was watching him. She looked on edge. He put his glass down and scrambled to peck her on the cheek, kicking himself for putting his foot in it, yet again.
“Wow, Ros... This is something else. Total next level. Man. Um... Congratulations?”
He retrieved the bottle and topped up his glass. He almost let it overflow, unable to take his eyes off her. She seemed different somehow, as if there was a veil that separated them. One he couldn’t see, or pass through.
“Ed, I haven’t sprouted a second head,” she said.
“I thought that was the whole point..?” he said, a lame attempt at a joke, because he wasn’t sure how else to react. On the back of Alex getting married, Beckett about to get married...this was huge. Ed knew it was selfish, but whenever one of them made these life-changing announcements, the ones that kept on coming, his first thought was never about them. It was always but what about me?
Right after Ros had disappeared, Beckett had resigned, leaving Ed thrust into the role of Bureau chief. He’d been relieved to hand the job back to its owner. Even lately, when he’d assigned himself the task of putting the team back together, he’d been happy to have it done with. He climbed lift shafts, not career ladders. The only weight he liked on his shoulders was a barbell.
Head in the clouds was his comfort zone. Taking off in his chopper, while someone else barked the orders. Leadership wasn’t his bag, and nor was the brooding maturity Alex had found so appealing in Adam. Ros and Beckett and their sombre approach to life—how he’d laughed at it, as he did at everything. But while he’d been wasting time amusing himself, his friends had been moving on with their lives. The party was over, and the other guests had left.
Everyone but Ed: stuck dancing on his own, to a tune that no one else remembered.
Alex sat on her bed, the box sitting in front of her. It was a guest bedroom, not the one she’d slept in during her childhood. That house had been sold after her dad died, leaving her with nothing but memories. Most of them were happy; rose-tinted, the way the past always was.
The box had once housed a disk drive. It was too big for its current contents, the rattle inside making it feel scant testament to a man’s adult life. Alex had felt the same about having Adam cremated, reducing him to an urn on the fireplace. A grave had seemed a more fitting memorial, and also a place to visit, when she was most in need of it.
Burial was positively antediluvian, these days. But she had a feeling Adam would have approved of that.
She took a breath and flipped off the lid, tipping out the contents. A stubby pencil, and two ballpoint pens: one green, one black. A crusty-looking fork. A thin pad of yellow post-its, stamped with BHQ. A navy blue tie, 60% acrylic, 40% silk. Cufflinks, dotted with tiny honeybees, a joky gift from Alex. Pages ripped from a brochure, exposing his least toxic secret. The honeymoon he’d booked for them, the one they’d never made it to.
Alex had forgotten all about it. She pondered the odds of a refund. Mauritius was expensive, and she needed the money.
Scraps of paper fluttered out last, raining over the rest. Alex’s heart lurched, recognising them without even having to look.
She’d made Adam his lunch the morning after he’d stayed at her place for the first time. She’d put a little note in it, a lip-glossed kiss, to amuse him. It had become a running joke between them: notes in his lunchbox, his jacket pocket, that were sometimes funny, sometimes not. Adam sent her texts in response. Alex had them stored on her phone, even now. They were the one thing left; the only thing she couldn’t contemplate disposing of.
She picked up one of the notes. I can’t wait to be your wife, it said. She crushed it in her fist like a flower.
The post-its were dog-eared at the edges, like Adam had carried them around with him. The top page was indented with scribble. Alex wondered what kinds of things he’d jotted down on them. Hive agents recorded phone calls as a matter of course, stored them in perpetuity. They could replay a conversation any time they chose. None of Adam’s tapes had made it to the box: Dent would never have released them, and the Bureau had reviewed them anyway. Hours and hours of phone calls, each one routine. There was no hope of a final message from Adam, explaining himself.
Alex took the pencil and coloured in the top post-it. Yellow creases became silver lines. Lines became numbers. The writing was definitely Adam’s; he was the first person she’d ever met who crossed his sevens and his zeros. It might have been a flight number. An account number. A telephone number..?
Once Alex had started moving, on the day of her wedding, she’d been unable to stop. She launched into action the same way now. Reaching for her phone, she impulsively dialled the number. It started with 07: another UK mobile. The rest she didn’t recognise. Could it mean...could it be...what if it was Stefano’s?
The dial tone gave way to voicemail. A robotic, pre-programmed message. Well, of course: Stefano was in a coma, unlikely to wake. Alex hit the star key, and considered the passcode. The closer you were to someone, the easier a code was to guess. There were always tells, no matter how security conscious they were. Ed liked to use the number of his childhood home. Alex could have seen it from outer space: the way he clung so fiercely to the past, unwilling to accept the changes around him. Unable to see the ways that he’d been changing, too.
It should have been harder with a stranger, but in some ways that made it easier. They might not remember to set one at all. Or they might pick something like 1-2-3-4, thinking it was easy to remember, and too obvious to guess.
Alex went with the obvious. The inbox sang like a canary. Three new voicemails: none of them saved. There was often no one-glance way to view them, without explicitly going to check. The simple systems of most modern phones didn’t allow for it. And who left voicemails nowadays, when a text did the trick with less effort? It wasn’t as if anyone ever listened to them...
“Have you been in an accident? You could be eligible for compensation!..”
“Hello, this is Dan at City Telecom. We’ve got some amazing deals on at the moment and we’d love to tell you all about them. Please call us on...”
For the little it revealed, Alex rather enjoyed the image of Stefano, ruthless mercenary, bombarded by cold callers. No wonder he ignored his voicemails.
She clicked to the third and final message.
“It’s me,” Adam’s voice said. “I know I should have called you before...but I kept on staring at the number. I see it in my sleep, you know? I guess I was too ashamed. I’ve made a big mistake, El. I’ve made so many, but this is the biggest. I thought I’d have more time, but it just ran out. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how to get out. I love...”
The phone slipped from Alex’s hand, and dropped with a thud to the floor.
“I guess I’m a bit surprised,” Ed said eventually, still digesting Ros’s big news. It crossed his mind to ask if Graeme had been equally taken aback, but it didn’t seem appropriate. Not least because he’d clearly misjudged that whole situation. “I, er, I guess everyone else was too.”
“I haven’t told them yet,” Ros said. Her hands were wringing at the thought. “Please, Ed. Don’t say a word to Beckett. Not until I’ve had chance to talk to him.”
Ed could understand that. It would probably be as much of a sensitive subject for Beckett as his engagement had been for her.
“Oh Ros, tell him. I know he’s like a bear with a sore head right now, but that’s Beckett for you. He’ll be fine. He’ll be really happy for you.”
“I know,” she said. “I know. I just... I just want to make sure I pick the right moment. The timing is important, you know?”
Ed didn’t. He mimed a zip across his lips anyway.
She squinted at him in amusement. “A bit surprised, Ed? Even your tan’s turned white.”
“They’ll never let me back into Oz now,” he said, feeling caught out. He couldn’t hide anything, anymore. He was so sick and tired of trying to. “I’ll be honest with you, Ros...”
“You always are,” she said, a touch of self-reproach in her voice.
“I know I was the one who pushed the whole Bureau thing. And I’ve never regretted having that safety net behind us. But I’ve been thinking about the old days a lot, lately. And when I do, I think of you and me and Beckett, speeding around the city, never giving it a second thought. And I wonder what happened to the three of us—how we went from that, to... to this. Weddings and babies and government pensions...”
“You’ve got a pension?” Ros asked.
“Well it’s final salary,” said Ed.
She laughed, looking tickled. And maybe, he thought, a bit relieved. “Ed, you are not the only one to feel this way, believe me. I want this baby, of course I do—but sometimes I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“Ros, you’ll be fine.”
He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “I know. Because I know you. There is nothing Ros Henderson can’t handle. And any time you want a babysitter—”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
“I was going to say, ask Alex...” Ros shook her head in exasperation. Ed’s had started to spin. “Huh. Babysitting. The good old days are seeming further away than ever.”
She nudged him in the side. “Good job we’ve got evidence, then.”
“You’re talking embarrassing pictures, aren’t you?” Most of them were of him, naturally. Not that Ed minded that. He jumped up, gleeful at the chance to indulge in a trip down memory lane. “Laptop’s on the desk. On second thought—you grab it for me while I check on the grub. And I’ll get you a drink. Soft one this time...”
He headed over to the kitchen and opened the oven to a cloud of smoke. The charred remains fed the bin instead, while he dug out some juice. Ed left the fridge door ajar for a moment, breathing in the cool; letting it clear his thoughts.
When he returned to the lounge with the glass and a stack of takeaway flyers, Ros was sitting where he’d left her, the laptop on her knee. There was a stack of albums, piled next to her.
“Wait up, they’re not mine...” He put the goods on the table and sat back down. “They’re Adam’s.”
Ros opened one, as if to check. “What on earth are you doing with Adam’s photo albums?”
“Alex wanted rid of them. It didn’t seem right, so I hid them under there. I mean, she might want to look at them one day.”
He pinched the laptop, flipping up the screen. “I think I’ve got Christmas Eve on here. You remember the one, we didn’t have any jobs on so we opened that bottle Clare sent us. Man, that stuff was strong. And then the phone went, and Beckett picked it up and said—”
It might as well have been Khazbek, for all that got through. Ros wasn’t listening to him, or looking at the laptop. She was flicking through more of Adam’s albums.
“Ros!” Ed screeched.
“Oh, come on. You haven’t even been tempted?”
“Hey now,” Ed said. “You don’t get a body like this without a little willpower, you know.”
He prodded rock-hard muscle, to make his point. Ros had no more interest in his physique than he had in hers. She kept on turning pages, stopping on one near the back. Ed shuffled closer, curiosity overcoming his better judgement. He saw what had caught her eye: pictures of Adam with a moustache and shoulder-length hair, clearly from his student days. There was more ease about him, like the weight of the world had yet to land on him. He was dressed like a reject from a rock band, and looked even more sozzled than Beckett had been that long-ago Christmas Eve.
“I guess we know what Adam did at uni,” Ed said. “BA in booze and bad hair...”
Ros peeled back the lining of the album. She removed one of the photos and held it up to the light.
He peered at it. “Hang on—that’s Stefano.”
“We always knew they went to uni together,” she said.
“Yeah, and it wasn’t all they had in common. Pair of crooks. Birds of a feather and all that...” His voice trailed off as he considered it. “How close were these guys, really? We didn’t exactly dig too deep into that connection. I mean, there were no phone or email records linking them.”
“Adam didn’t think Stefano could make it to the wedding,” Ros reminded him. “Or so he told him in front of Alex. Which suggests he knew it was happening.”
“So they had some kind of contact outside of traceable channels,” Ed said. He mulled it over, an idea taking shape. “What if Stefano was the blackmailer? Did he ever let on that he had some dirt on Adam?”
“Not that I remember,” Ros said. She took a breath before she went on, delving back into a nightmare. “Stefano had a gun, but he wasn’t the one who shot Adam, Ed. He was genuinely shaken by it, as far as I could tell.”
“Why get him involved at all, if he cared so much?”
“He had a job to carry out. However close he and Adam might have been: it didn’t stop him poking a gun in his ribs, and forcing him away.”
Ed wondered if he was forcing this, too; leading them a merry dance in his quest for the truth. “If the money went to Stefano,” he said, “then he must have had something on him... Something bad enough to make him risk the loans, and the thieving from the Hive. And Alex...”
Ros flicked on through the album. She paused at another page: Adam, now clean-shaven, beaming in gown and mortarboard. Ed recognised a couple of the proud faces flanking him. The last time he’d seen them was at the funeral, wracked with pain. The contrast wasn’t lost on him. Or on Ros, judging by her furrowed brow.
“Don’t torture yourself, Ros. There’s nothing you could have done to save him.”
Her frown deepened. She ran a finger over the photo, in what seemed like a gesture of mourning. But as Ed looked on, she peeled back the film that covered it. She slid a nail under the edge of the graduation picture and prised it from its sticky backing, like a microchip from a circuit board. Another photo emerged, hidden beneath the first.
“Gotcha,” she said, extracting the second picture. She held it for them both to see. Ed’s mouth fell open in shock.
The picture was of Adam, dressed in baggy jeans and t-shirt. He was holding hands with a girl with boot-polish black hair, wearing a lacy dress and Doc Martens. Behind them was a sign for a registry office. Both wore smiles, but there was a bewildered edge to them. It looked like they weren’t quite sure what they’d done, or why they’d done it.
Ed swore under his breath, a spot of language practice. He turned to Ros, desperate to put the genie back in the bottle.
“Freshers’ week fancy dress. Got to be. Or maybe they were just passing...”
“Ed, she’s got a ring on her finger. I don’t need to enhance it to see that.” She pointed at the background. “And look who was there too.”
With his imposing frame and ever-present glasses, Stefano made an impression even in low-res. “The best man?” Ed wondered.
“It looks like a rush job,” she said. “They must have got a passer-by to take the photo.”
“They’re like eighteen in that picture,” Ed said, rattled by that even more than the rest. Ros didn’t react to it, but then, it turned out she’d been engaged pretty young, too. Alex and Beckett hadn’t been that old, either. It was only lately that Ed had seen the value in allowing things to, well, settle. He’d have dismissed it out of hand, at that age.
“This isn’t in his service record,” Ros recalled. “How did the Hive miss this, in their vetting?”
“It’s not like they haven’t got a history of getting it wrong. They let in Cottrell, Moore, Filsinger...” He smirked. “Beckett.”
Her frown returned. “Maybe this was what Stefano was blackmailing him over.”
“I don’t know, Ros. A divorce isn’t exactly the crime of the century, is it? Unless...”
“Unless he never bothered to get a divorce.”
“And Stefano knew about it.”
“I don’t think there’s any ‘maybe’ about that,” said Ros.
“Right when you think you’ve found every skeleton in this guy’s closet,” Ed said grimly, “even more bones come tumbling out.”
He took the photo from Ros and gripped it tight between his fingers, resisting the urge to rip it up and pretend they’d never found it. But it wouldn’t solve anything: hiding things never did. What was done was done. What to do next was the question.
It was another he didn’t have an answer to.
Adam’s message was replaying, over and over, in Alex’s head. It had locked her into a feedback loop; the same state of inertia she’d existed in for months.
There’d been little more to the message, when she’d worked up the nerve to listen. A slamming door; the scuffle of shoes; merry voices. Alex could have isolated the sounds—Ros had long ago taught her how. But she’d filled in the blanks herself. Adam, circulating, sneaking off to call. His other woman, never noticing. A guest, interrupting him: someone close enough that he’d hung up in a hurry. Stefano, watching like a hungry shark, awaiting his moment to strike. And Alex herself: off preening in her finery, oblivious.
I love... Alex?
Both of you?
With things gone quiet at the Bureau, Alex had no hope of distracting herself with work. She was spying on her colleagues, instead. Ros was in her office, blinds closed, with Ed. As for Beckett, he was holed up with Christa. And possibly a cat, presently delivering its take on ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.
She’d never felt like so much of a spare part. Not even at the start, swept along in the slipstream of her dazzling new colleagues. The three of them had worked in wordless, perfect synergy; Alex liked to think she’d made it four. But things had changed, since Sunstorm. Ros and Beckett had been the hub of that team, and when they’d broken up, the team as they’d known it had splintered, too. One tight-knit unit, riven by unspoken tension.
Adam had borrowed the phone, Alex deduced. Or stolen it. If he’d used his own, the call would already have been logged, and traced. She accessed the Bureau’s Phone Finder portal. She tapped in the number, finger hovering over the Enter key. The cursor blinked on, a steady taunt.
Heads moved through the blinds. Ed and Ros, who’d wound back the clock. They’d been at it all morning: talking to each other with their eyes, a language Alex didn’t speak. Ed had let slip on the drive to work that Ros had come round, the night before. At the time, consumed by the message, Alex had thought nothing of it.
Ed was up to something. What if he’d gone back on his word, and told Ros about Adam’s debts? Alex had the morning mail on her desk, waiting for delivery. It gave her an excuse to check on them, if she could drag her feet from the mud long enough to do it...
The day dragged on. Alex checked her emails, enjoying the one Ros had sent to Jan about the lifts, copying in buildings maintenance, and the rest of the Bureau. She listened to one of Ed’s weird language CDs, left by accident in her player. She almost beat Beckett’s high score on Minesweeper; Ed was adamant he’d cheated. She stared too long at the clock in the corner, remembering the timestamp on Adam’s message. Hours after he’d married Alex, he’d been thinking of someone else.
She set off an explosion and rose to her feet, grabbing the bundle of letters.
“...could have tried himself to alter his records,” Ed was saying, as Alex barged into the room. Ros shut down her screen in a nanosecond. But it was angled towards Ed, and the doors. It was already too late.
“Register of births, marriages and deaths?” Alex blurted out, forgetting to explain herself. “In Northamptonshire..?”
Ed shuffled his feet. He glanced at Ros, something passing between them. Alex might have been excluded from the silent conversations, but Ed’s body was screaming. He didn’t want her to know what they were doing, and he had no idea how to cover it up.
“Genealogical records,” Ros supplied, discreetly balling a printout.
“Yeah,” Ed chimed in. “A case we’re working on.”
“But we don’t have any at the moment,” Alex said. “That’s why I’m twiddling my thumbs and Christa’s warbling hymns at Beckett, trying to get him to choose one.”
A smile came to Ros’s lips as she glanced at Beckett’s office. Ed crossed his arms, and possibly his fingers. “Okay, sure, but this is a new case. You know the problems we’ve been having with the lifts?” He looked at Ros in triumph. “Gremlins. Hacker gremlins. From, er, Southampton.”
“Northampton,” Ros corrected.
“Shire,” Ed added with a tut. She chucked the ball at him.
“Your email says the fault’s mechanical,” Alex said, perturbed by the camaraderie. “Wear and tear caused by bio-engineered rats gnawing on the cables, wasn’t it?”
“I might not have been entirely serious about the rats,” said Ros.
“It’s one way to get their attention,” Ed said, pocketing the ball with a grin.
“And now you’ve got mine,” Alex said. “I wasn’t born yesterday, Ed. Tell me what you’re really doing.”
Ed’s smile faded. He looked lost, but Ros had him covered. She leaned back in her seat and jabbed a finger at the keyboard.
“We’re looking for a name,” she said, as the display blinked back to life.
Alex peered at it, still clutching the mail. Ed hovered next to her as if he was poised to wrestle her away.
“Whose name? Maybe I could help..?”
“If you’ve got any good suggestions,” Ros said. She sounded so convincing that Alex wondered if she’d misjudged the situation.
“Names?” Alex said, reduced to an echo in the batcave.
“Baby names,” Ros prompted, a hand on her stomach.
Alex stared at her for a second, then at Ed. In that same instant, it clicked.
“Oh my God, Ros! Congratulations!” She leapt over to hug her, grinning up at Ed. “I knew the two of you were up to something.”
“Hey, it’s nothing to do with me,” he said, looking spooked at the prospect.
“Oh no, I know. I didn’t think that—but you were acting so strange, and I thought maybe—”
Ed shook his head. Alex turned back to Ros, wondering why they were taking the interruption so well. Neither of them were as quick to rile as Beckett, but her behaviour should still have been cause for annoyance. Questions, at the very least. Not this strange kind of calm: the kind that came before a storm.
“You know there are websites for this kind of thing? Books too, I suppose.”
“Ed suggested we think outside of the box,” Ros said.
“Exactly how many self-help guides did you swallow while you were Bureau chief?..” Alex took another look at the screen. “Hm. I’d avoid Harry.”
“What’s wrong with Harry?”
“Harry and the Hendersons?” said Ed.
“Harry Hurry?” said Alex.
Ros blinked in surprise, as if neither had occurred to her. She cleared her throat, words emerging in awkward succession. “Listen, Alex...about the baby...”
This time it was Ed who rescued her. “This is Code Red stuff, Alex. Okay? Jan and Beckett don’t know.”
Alex nodded her assent, embarrassed. It was presumptuous, to imagine everything Ed did had something to do with her. Their lives weren’t that intertwined, even if she had been monopolising his attentions for months.
She stood there for a moment, and remembered to drop the letters. “I, er, should get back to work. I’m sorry for interrupting you.”
She closed the door to the office and started slowly down the hallway, cheeks in flames. Raised voices carried from the window to Beckett’s office. The singing had been replaced by an argument. Alex tuned it out, fearful of hearing something else she wasn’t supposed to.
She wandered to the alcove, wondering how Beckett would take Ros’s news. It felt almost inevitable: this seemed to be the year for them all to move on with their lives, in one way or another. And Ros had taken a liking to Carly, teenage electronics whiz, when she’d been assigned to her a few months before. Not so long ago Alex would have assumed that Ros was more motherboard than mother, but events had changed everything.
Maybe that was why Jan was so concerned about Beckett. Marriage was a huge commitment, and if you rushed into it, not knowing everything about the person you were marrying, it turned into a disaster. Julia Fairchild sprang to mind, even before Alex herself. The thought of Jan made her wonder what she’d say, when she found out. It might not be a move to another continent, but it would certainly have an impact on the Bureau.
Alex was musing about whether Ros would bring the baby to the office, or if Graeme would look after it, when a slamming door jolted her back to reality. She glanced up to see Christa storming out of Beckett’s office. Beckett followed seconds later, trying and failing to stop her.
“Christa, please wait—”
“I’m fed up of this, Nick! Fed up!”
Alex shrank back against the wall. A blast from Beckett for spying was the last thing she wanted. But neither of them noticed her, and acoustics made it impossible not to hear. She had a front row seat to this one, whether she liked it or not.
Christa was at the lift, assaulting the call button. She wiped away a tear. “You don’t have an opinion about anything. You haven’t even hired a suit yet. Go ahead, admit it—you don’t care about this wedding!”
“I’m marrying you, aren’t I?” snapped Beckett.
Alex flinched at his words, bubbling with resentment. Christa recoiled, as if she’d been slapped.
“From the first time I met you,” she said, chin wobbling, “I knew you were the one. That’s why I came on so strong...and you didn’t exactly resist, did you?”
“Because I liked you too.”
“Liked? Oh, how terribly comforting. I’m so glad you like me, Nick, since we’re getting married in three weeks’ time.”
Beckett twitched, like it was a countdown on a bomb he was helpless to defuse. “Because you were so hellbent on dragging me down the aisle you wouldn’t wait five minutes, let alone another year or two!”
A sad smile tugged at her mouth. “It’s not supposed to be like this, Nick.”
“We’re not living in one of your fairy tales,” Beckett said. “It’s not all hearts and flowers, all the time.”
“How can you expect me to live like this? You shut me out of everything: your work, your feelings... You’ve never once told me you love me, did you know that? I’m not even sure you do.”
She fell silent, waiting for an answer that didn’t come. Alex knew it wouldn’t. Beckett didn’t enjoy being backed into a corner.
Christa reached in her bag for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes. “Everyone at work’s always asking what it was like when you proposed. And I’m constantly having to lie to them—”
He frowned. “Why can’t you tell the truth?”
“Oh, that I said if you wanted to prove how committed you were, you’d marry me? And you said ‘all right’? That’s very romantic, isn’t it?”
Alex’s mouth dropped open. Ed and Ros were presumably still studying their records. There was no sign that they’d heard.
“All right, fine,” Beckett said. Christa glared at him, but he was too deep in thought to notice. He snapped his fingers. “‘Jerusalem’. There you go. That’s a good one. Let’s have that.”
“This is my wedding, not Last Night of the bloody Proms!” Christa screeched. The lift dinged. Jan stepped out, into the warzone. Christa shouldered past her.
“We’ll finish this later,” Beckett called, as she vanished from view. He turned with reluctance to Jan, who was staring at him, eyebrow raised. Her brows spent most of their time in her hairline, these days; navigating office politics with the same aplomb as Whitehall. “You didn’t hear that.”
“Not a single word,” said Jan. “Would you care to enlighten me?”
Beckett’s mouth fell open. He closed it again, digging in his heels. Jan’s stance softened. She regarded him for a moment, seeming more concerned by his silence than offended. Alex leaned forward, expectant, as she opened her mouth to speak.
Ed came marching down the corridor, cutting off whatever she was about to say. As Ros caught up with him, he hit the lift panel with the ball of his hand.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” she asked.
Ed shook his head. “Put your feet up.”
“Excellent advice,” Jan said to Ros. “I trust you’ll be taking it more often.” Beckett glanced between them, confused. Ros looked at Jan strangely. An inscrutable smile was her only answer.
“I’ll let you know how I get on,” Ed promised Ros, as the doors opened.
The lift was groaning in protest. Ed took no notice. He took a long, searching glance around the Bureau. His eyes fixed on Alex, lurking in the shadows. She bent her head, caught out. When she looked again he’d disappeared, whisked away. She frowned, wondering if it had been her imagination, or if he’d looked a little...guilty.
The maps on the wall caught her eye. She thought back to Ros’s screen. Local records held no significance, but the location did. Northants was where Adam had gone to uni. But it was a coincidence. It didn’t mean anything, that Ed had suggested Ros seek a name in the files of the very same county. That he’d been talking about altering records, the same way Alex had for Adam, before Ros’s intervention had thrown her off the scent.
It couldn’t...could it?
Jan, Ros and Beckett had remained by the lift. As Alex crept back to her desk to initiate a search, she caught snatches of their conversation.
“Something I have to tell you—concerns all of you—”
“Ed—the city—could be hours—”
“If there’s a job to do, Ros and Alex can—”
“It’s about Stefano. I’m afraid he’s—”
The mention of the name should have piqued Alex’s curiosity. But she was on a mission of her own, and news of Stefano didn’t move her. He’d always been going to succumb to his injuries, one day.
Her first port of call appeared on the screen. Ros’s web history, every byte deleted. Ros only left trails if she wanted them followed: Alex was no match for her, if she was determined to hide something. Next up was Alex’s credit file, to ensure it hadn’t been tampered with. But she’d forgotten to close the Phone Finder from earlier, and it popped back up on her screen. Panicked, Alex jabbed at the keyboard to close it. Her finger slipped, and hit Enter.
The results came up in a flash. Alex stabbed shut the window. But she’d already seen the name, and it hit her like a shot of adrenaline. She brought the screen back up. From there, she operated on auto-pilot, tracing the thread through the maze. Name, address, place of work. Even the picture on the passport.
Another blonde. Adam certainly had a type.
Alex made a call, activating the tracker in Ed’s Jeep, checking his location against a roadmap. She burst down the hallway and pushed the call button for the third time in ten minutes. The others hadn’t moved. They stood there, an unwanted audience.
“Off for an early lunch, are we?” Beckett demanded.
The doors creaked apart, saving Alex from an answer. She was more focused on getting on the road, after Ed. She might not speak the language of the ex-Gizmos gang, but as it turned out, she didn’t need to. She didn’t even need the tracker in his car.
Because Ed was going to the same place as Alex. And she knew exactly who he was visiting.
The financial district was snarled with roadworks. Ed would have been better off going old-style, on his bike. He parked the Jeep a good mile away, pace further slowed by crowds. There were Christmas lights up already, jewelled across the streets. Dark clouds threatened above, blacking the low winter sun. His hands kept darting to his pocket, ensuring the photos he’d stuffed there hadn’t got lost. Two different weddings...and a third one weeks away.
Ellen had listed her occupation on the certificate as ‘student’. Ed had kept faith with his prank theory, until Ros had found the copy. It was buried in a corrupted database of the old registry office, a block away from the uni she and her groom had attended.
They’d both assumed her existence explained the debts Adam had accrued, one secret leading inexorably to another. It had seemed obvious to them, the previous night. Adam was leading a double life. He didn’t only have a wife tucked away, but a half-dozen kids. No wonder he needed the money.
Ellen was far from a gullible housewife. She lived on her own in a rented one-bedroom flat, and worked as a receptionist at—of all the places—Kamen and Ross. Ros must have talked to her fifty times, and never known. Mixing official records with a call to Graeme, they’d found out how much she earned, and what she spent it on. According to her bank statements, it was haircuts, facials and shoes, and most definitely not nursery fees.
Her employment record was impeccable. She didn’t have a criminal record, either. The one official trace of her was a security check, run when she’d started her job. She was young, childless, and to all intents and purposes, single. For all Ed and Ros knew, Ellen had forgotten that she’d ever known Adam Mosby, much less married him.
Kamen and Ross loomed into view. Ed entered the glass-fronted lobby, and strode towards the reception desk. There was a blonde on duty. A sleek, professional bob. As the woman looked up, phone pressed to her ear, Ed remembered her passport, and saw through the dye job. He checked the photos one last time, and flashed his ID card.
“Bureau 2. Can I have a word?”
Ellen frowned warily, and put down the phone.
“I don’t understand,” Ros said. “I thought he wasn’t expected to recover?”
She and Beckett were alone in his office, struggling to digest the bombshell Jan had dropped about Stefano. With a committee meeting inked on her schedule, she’d left them to it; via the stairs, since the lift was stuck between floors again. Jan seemed to be relishing the prospect of a tussle with Dent. He’d quoted chapter and verse of the rule book to wriggle his way out of the hostage debacle, which surely left her little leverage.
Ros was starting to wonder if there was something more to it, after all. Beckett seemed too rocked to heed Jan’s odd behaviour, or cryptic pronouncements. He’d barely spoken, since they’d got the news. His jaw worked in silence as he sat on the sofa next to her. Ros crossed the sides of her jacket, unnerved by the proximity.
“You cold?” he asked, the action breaking him from the spell.
“A little,” Ros said.
“Look, if it helps,” Beckett said, “this is as big a shock to me as it is to you. I thought Stefano was on his last legs, too. At least they can prosecute him, now. With you and me to testify, they’ll have no choice but to send him down. They’ll throw away the key.”
“I’m not sure I want to testify,” Ros said. She felt his stare, asking the question. “I’m only just starting to forget. I don’t think I’m ready to relive it.”
Beckett scratched at a non-existent mark on the sofa. “I had nightmares for weeks,” he said, out of nowhere.
Ros turned to him, stunned by the disclosure. It was deceptively casual; she could see in his eyes what the admission had cost him. It explained a lot about him, over the past few weeks; they'd all chalked it up to the stress of planning a wedding. She’d never seen him more intractable, despite the happiest event of his life being right around the corner. It didn’t excuse how he’d treated Ed, or Ros, or even earlier, Christa. But neither of them could claim much credit, where she was concerned.
“Ed’s always badgering me about it,” Beckett said. “I think he thinks he’s helping. But he doesn’t understand what it was like. None of them do.”
Relieving himself of one heavy weight didn’t seem to have lightened the load. He looked more troubled than ever. “Look, Ros, what happened back then... I don’t think I really explained myself properly, the last time we—”
“Why didn’t you say you were having nightmares?”
His brow furrowed, processing the abrupt change of subject. “Not the done thing, is it?”
“It’s not a sign of weakness to admit you’re having trouble coping,” Ros said. She hid a smile, imagining the surprise on Simon’s face if he heard her repeating one of his mantras. “You should have said something.”
Beckett seemed in the mood for confessions. He leaned forward, hands clasped, elbows on his knees. “I thought for a while a change of scene would help,” he said.
Ros stared at him. “You were going to resign from the Bureau?”
Again, she almost added. It felt like it was hanging, unspoken, in the air between them.
“I even told Christa I was. I had it all planned: private security somewhere. A normal life. Nine to five. Safe and sound...”
Ros really did feel cold, at the thought of it. Losing him to Christa was one thing. But the idea of him leaving the Bureau, gone from every sphere of her life, chilled her to the marrow.
“Did Jan talk you out of it?”
“I didn’t tell her,” Beckett said. He sat back. “She would have sent me on gardening leave, so I could get my head together.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“For a start, I don’t have a garden...”
He smiled, enjoying the joke, dissipating the tension for a second. Then his face shuttered back up.
“It was never going to be an option, Ros. Leaving, or taking leave. It would have been selfish. What happened to Adam and all those people—that’s the reason we’re here, to stop it happening again. And if the price we have to pay for that is a few bad dreams—well, it’s worth paying. How could I live with myself if I walked away from the Bureau, just so I could get a good night’s sleep?” He glanced over at her. “I’d need a better reason than that.”
“And how did Christa take it? When you changed your mind?”
The conversation had turned into a minefield. Beckett plowed straight through it, heedless. “Ever since she found out what kind of work we do, she’s wanted me to throw in the towel. She was thrilled when I said I’d do it. When I couldn’t go through with it...”
“She’ll get used to it,” Ros assured him.
He chuckled to himself. “I very much doubt that, Ros.”
“Your mum did, surely.”
“Yeah. I guess she must have done. And look where it got her.” His face blanched with pain, looking very far away. On a sudden impulse Ros took hold of his hand, tugging him back to her. He blinked in surprise, but made no effort to distance himself. He squeezed her hand, fingers lacing with hers.
“Who do you think they’ll send to question Stefano?” Ros asked.
“The first probationer who walks past Dent’s office, probably.”
“Beckett, I think we should do it.”
He seemed less than enthused by the notion. “I’ll put it to Jan,” he said. “See what she...”
“I think we should do it now.”
His head swivelled in alarm. “Ros, he’s not long woken up. For all we know, he thinks he’s a little green man from Mars! We have no idea what he remembers. This is hardly the best time to interrogate him...”
“It’s the perfect time,” Ros insisted, and it made perfect sense to her. There were answers they didn’t have. Whoever got the job, they might ask some of the right questions, but there were lots that would never occur to them: most of which involved Adam, and his secrets. They needed to lay the ghost to rest. She needed it. Alex would need it, one day, when she was ready.
“Jan’s never going to authorise that,” said Beckett. The inveterate rebel, clinging to the chain of command. It made Ros smile.
“What?” he said, frowning.
“Jan’s not our keeper, Nick.”
“I’m fully aware of that, Ros.”
“Sometimes I think you forget.”
“You want to know what I think?” Beckett asked. “That you and me going anywhere near Stefano, ever again, is a very bad idea...”
Ros dropped his hand and stood. He rose from the sofa and caught hold of her arm. His grip wasn’t firm enough to stop her. It felt automatic. More like muscle memory; a habit that neither of them seemed able to break.
“Frankly, Beckett,” she said, turning to him, “I don’t care what you think.”
It had come out more sharply than she’d intended. Her control was slipping. It always did, when he touched her.
Beckett stared at her, blood quickened by the challenge. “Oh really?”
He was close to her. Far too close for comfort. Not nearly close enough. Ros shook off his hand. She forced herself away, with a flicker of regret.
“Really,” she said.
“In that case, then,” Beckett said, gritting his teeth as he reached for his keys, “you’re going to need some company.”
“We thought we were going to be together forever,” Ellen recalled. “Getting married seemed like a good idea at the time.”
She and Ed were sitting in a dark corner of a wine bar, hidden in a warren of others. Ed didn’t want any interruptions. He’d chosen it for that reason, or so he told himself. The fact it was the same place he’d gone with Sasha, when she’d reappeared in his life, had nothing to do with it.
Sasha had lied to him, maybe from the very first day he’d met her. He’d returned the favour, in this bar, at Jan’s behest. But he’d been nothing but honest with Ellen. It was either that spirit of openness, or the scary picture on his ID, that had persuaded her to talk to him. Ed wasn’t sure which.
“But you regretted it afterwards?” he pressed.
“I had doubts from the second he proposed. Adam was sentimental: he loved making grand, romantic gestures. But there was nothing to back them up. He climbed into my halls one time, with a rose between his teeth, like he was James Bond. At least, he thought it was my halls... Oh, he was good looking, but he knew it and he played on it. Those doe eyes of his got him out of all sorts of trouble.
“All he wanted was to work for the government and drive around in an Aston Martin. He couldn’t do that with a record. Or with me, tying him down...”
“So why get married, then?”
“We were young,” Ellen said, with a hint of scorn in her voice, as if that explained everything. “It was never going to last. We fell out, and then we broke up. Over a speeding ticket, of all things.”
“You got caught speeding?”
“Adam got caught,” she said. “He wanted me to say I was driving. It felt like he cared more about keeping his nose clean than he did about me. And I guess I cared more about keeping mine clean, than I did about him.” She swirled a straw around her fizzy water. “I didn’t see much of him after that. I think we were both a bit embarrassed that we’d taken it so seriously.”
“When I was a kid,” said Ed, “you married for good, and not for a good time.”
His photo ID had been taken during Ed’s brief stint as Bureau chief. He looked as unforgiving in it as the light had been: he didn’t see himself, when he looked at it. He saw his father, looking back at him. He’d gone for fatherly condescension here, too, instead of trying to get on Ellen’s level. It was freaky, but effective. She looked chastened.
He slid the photo of Alex and Adam, on their wedding day, across the table. The gloss sparkled under the sea of bulbs, studded in the ceiling. Ellen obeyed the silent command. She peered down at it, brow creased beneath her fringe.
“Bigamy’s not so romantic, is it, Ellen?”
“You mean Adam never—” She clasped her mouth in horror.
Ed tapped the picture. “This is Alex. His wife. Or at least...she thinks she is.” He examined Ellen, who seemed crestfallen. “Are you sure he never got in touch? Never tried to call you, send papers through or something?”
“I told you before. The last time I saw him was the day we graduated.” She shook her head mournfully. “Adam said he’d sort it, and I trusted him. God, I was so stupid... And now he’s dead. I can’t believe he’s dead...”
“It was very sad,” Ed said, words clipped. He hadn’t elaborated on how Adam had died, much less when. “Stefano,” he went on. “Where does he fit into this?”
“He was my best friend,” Ellen said. “We went to school together. His family wanted him educated over here: I think they were Belgian. Might have been French...
“When we got to uni, we met Adam. He fitted in straight away. He was like the piece we didn’t know was missing. And then...” She shrugged. “It was never the same after Adam and I fell in love. Three’s an awkward number, you know?”
It was a rhetorical question. But the words made Ed shift in his seat, as if some buried part of him was responding.
“Adam and Ste were joined at the hip. From day one, they did everything together—like when they joined the anarchists’ society. They thought it would be a laugh. A great way to pick up girls. Adam was worried about how it would look, but Ste talked him out of it. He did the climb with him, too...except he did it in the buff. Ste used to egg him on all the time. Every time they got caught, he was the one who took the fall.”
“Did he take the speeding ticket too?” Ed asked.
“They’d fallen out too, at that point. But he would have done, earlier, no questions asked. Ste loved Adam like a brother. He would have done anything for him. He didn’t care about appearances. He was constantly in trouble, even when we were kids.”
“You didn’t trust him?”
“With me, always... But he had a reckless streak. He hated rules; the idea of Adam joining the civil service. He tried to talk him out of that, too, but Adam had wanted it since he was a kid. His heart was set on it.” She picked up the photo, studying it. “Stefano changed, when we got together. I think he felt left out.”
“You think he had feelings for you?”
“God, no,” Ellen said, lip curling in horror. “I never fancied him, either. But in some ways, I think that made it harder. It was always me and Ste, and then it became me and Adam. Ste got mixed up with a really bad crowd. He was hardcore into bodybuilding, at that point. He got busted for dealing steroids. He dropped out of uni, before they could kick him out...but he still turned up to graduation.”
“The ghost of Christmas past,” Ed said.
“He threw a punch at the vice-chancellor. They threw him out. And that was that. The three of us went our separate ways.”
“After everything you went through together,” Ed said, “that’s kind of sad.”
“That’s life,” Ellen said, dropping the photo. Her gaze fixed on Alex: frozen in time, a Greek goddess in lavender. “Does she know about me?”
“Are you going to tell her?”
Ed gave a rueful smile. He’d known the risks when he’d confided in Ros. It wasn’t as if he’d broken a confidence with this. It had been something they’d stumbled across, purely by chance. Yet Alex would blame him for digging it up; he knew she would.
“Alex deserves to know the truth,” he said, because that was true, too, whatever came after.
“What’s she like?”
His smile widened. He didn’t need the photo to picture Alex. “She’s smart, and kind. She's got eyes as blue as the Pacific. She can’t cook or sew—man, can she ever not sew—but she does a mean karate kick. She’s a black belt, in fact. She’s amazing, and she doesn’t even realise.”
“Sounds like you like her a lot.”
“She shrunk my favourite shirt in the wash,” Ed said. “Jury’s still out.” He coughed, keen to get back on track. He never planned conversations; he preferred to feel his way around them. Develop rapport, instead of doing a Beckett, and going straight for the throat. But the time for niceties had passed.
“We keep going back to the last time you saw Adam,” he said. “What about Stefano?”
“He turned up at the bank,” Ellen said. “A few months ago. He was trying to get something financed.” A line formed between her eyes. “He asked me about Adam. He knew a lot more than I did: he told me he was working for the government, the way he’d always planned. He didn’t sound happy about it. He sounded bitter. He said if he hadn’t taken the rap for him, they’d never have let him through the door. He said Adam owed him...owed him big-time.”
“Was that the last time you heard from him?”
“He rang me at work. It was July, I think. He seemed excited about something, but he wouldn’t talk about it.” She met Ed’s eyes. “He asked me if I knew what was happening at home. He said they’d knocked down the registry office; built a block of flats on top of it. It was like he was—fishing.”
“For your marital status, I suspect,” Ed said.
“Well, I didn’t,” said Ellen. “I gave him my mobile number and told him to call me back. I didn’t want him calling me at work. The Japanese have taken us over, and they’re a lot stricter on protocol. They issued the front desk with phrasebooks so we could answer the phone properly. They don’t like us taking personal calls.”
“Did he ever ring you?”
“No,” she said. “He didn’t.” She took a sip of her water. Ed’s cappuccino was untouched, the stencilled foam now an impressionist mess. “Stefano did something to Adam, didn’t he? That’s what this is really about.”
“He had some involvement,” Ed said.
“Is he dead, too?” She pursed her lips, when he didn’t answer. “In other words, yes.”
“In other words,” said Ed, “the jury’s out on that one, too.”
Ellen whipped up more bubbles with her straw, a girlish movement at odds with her razor sharp hair. It caught Ed off guard. Sure, she’d been naïve about the divorce, but there was a very adult poise to her, otherwise. There was a jadedness about her that he recognised, and found unsettling. She’d told him how she and her friends had grown apart, no sadness or anger, like it was a thing that happened. Friendships were their own private universe, ever expanding.
Three wasn’t awkward. It had been plain sailing between Ed, Ros and Beckett, unless you counted Cyberax. And yet, when it came to the crunch... He’d given up on Ros. He’d given up on Beckett. He’d given up on Alex, at the very first hurdle. Falls hurt less, if you let them happen.
The people you cared for could be history in a heartbeat. Sasha walking out had taught him that. Sasha dying, he realised, had driven it home.
“Why did Stefano think Adam owed him so badly?”
“There were lots of little things,” Ellen said. “Egging the vice-chancellor’s office. Letting the lab animals escape. Siphoning off fuel tanks from campus security...” She removed the straw from the glass and folded it over. She took a long time over it, bending the soggy paper into a circle.
“What about the big ones?” Ed asked.
Ellen wound the straw around her finger, like the ghost of a ring. It ripped under the strain.
“I could match up his record to his time at uni,” Ed said, a casual threat. “Compare it with Adam’s. I could narrow it down. Make an educated guess. Or...you could just tell me.”
“I can’t,” Ellen said.
Ed reviewed Stefano’s record in his head. The early days seemed like small fry next to what had followed. “Vandalism. Petty theft. Criminal damage. Lewd behaviour. Dangerous driving. Ringing any bells?”
Ellen looked away, shredding the straw ever further. Ed needed to turn up the heat. He considered her weak spot. Not a hair out of place; a respect for authority; a perfect record, jealously guarded. A haste to forget a bad marriage, to the extent of not seeking a divorce, or even checking up on it. Remembering it had happened meant spotting her all-important image, a fiction kept up even inside her own head. More and more, she and Adam seemed like a match made in heaven.
“I could match his record up to yours, too. How do you think your Japanese bosses would like that?”
Her face went pale, and Ed hated himself for it. This wasn’t him. And yet he knew it was, now. The awareness had crept up on him, somewhere along the line. The image he had of himself was as out of date as his old photo would have been. But he couldn’t seem to square the two. It was the one change, the one truth, he wasn’t ready to face.
“It’s a hunch,” Ellen said, folding under the pressure like her straw. “That’s all it is. I don’t have any proof.” The words tumbled out in jerky, quickfire fashion. “I overheard them talking. After the court date. Adam was going on about Stefano. How he’d saved him. Saved his future. He said he didn’t know how he’d ever repay him...” Her voice caught in her throat. Her eyes were glittering. Ed passed her a napkin. She patted them, trying to fix her mascara.
“I guess he found a way,” Ed said, under his breath. He’d pushed her too far, and he knew it.
Ellen glanced at her watch, and squeaked back her chair. “I really do have to get back to work.”
“I’ve kept you too long,” Ed said, as English an apology as he knew how to make. He tossed a generous tip on the table. “I’ll put in a good word for you with your boss.”
“Graeme Hurry. I’ve got an in. He’s dating my friend.”
Ellen paused in her efforts to escape him, curiosity piqued. “You know Sorrel?”
“I’m pretty sure her name’s Ros,” said Ed.
They stared at each other. Ed attempted to process the new information. It didn’t compute. It had been that sort of year.
“It’s strange,” Ellen mused as he walked her through falling snow back to Kamen and Ross, a tenuous truce settling upon them. “I know we were married, but I never felt like I was Adam’s wife.”
“Only in the eyes of the law,” Ed pointed out.
“But Adam’s dead, so that means this is the end of it, doesn’t it? I don’t have to worry about divorces. I don’t have to go to court, or sign anything?”
“I doubt it, but I’ll let you know.”
“And I won’t have to see his wife, will I?”
“I don’t know,” Ed said. “She might want to talk to you. After all, you’ve got a lot in common.”
She stopped by the glass door and hesitated as Ed opened it for her. “Will you let me know then...when you tell Alex?”
“Alex already knows.”
Ed’s head spun back towards the doorway. Alex was standing on the other side, framed by the gap. Her arms were crossed, lips set cold as marble. Melting white specks dotted her curls like confetti. She was filthy underneath it. She looked like she’d climbed a chimney, or, more likely, a lift shaft.
Her eyes blazed into Ellen, looking her up and down for a scornful second. She turned to Ed, looking more disappointed than angry. He regarded her evenly, accepting his fate. He knew Ros would never have given him up. They’d underestimated Alex—and not for the first time.
“But you don’t know everything,” Ellen said.
Stefano had spent the duration of his coma in a private room at a nearby hospital, where there was nothing to single him out from any other patient. He’d been shot twice when the hostage drama had reached a bloody conclusion, an irony that hadn’t escaped anyone at the Bureau. The wounds had been superficial; the damage had been caused by his fall. The swelling around his brain had kept him unconscious, and should have cost him his life.
SSD had been dispatched to the hospital, but the weather seemed to be holding them up. There were no guards in the room: the lone occupant was Stefano, prostrate as a mummy in the lily-white bed. Shorn of his glasses, he seemed naked, despite being covered to the neck in a gown. But for the rise and fall of his chest, he was motionless.
“What’s the matter, Stefano?” Ros said as she neared the bed, Beckett tense by her side. “Not had enough sleep lately?”
Stefano didn’t move. Beckett leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
“He’s asleep. Probably drugged. We should come back later.”
Ros stared at Stefano. He filled the bed like a man lost in Lilliput. She nodded in reluctance, but as Beckett put a hand on her back to lead her out, cold fingers shot up from the bed, and closed around her wrist.
Stefano stared at her, his eyes wide open. As she pulled her hand away he slithered up in the bed, peering like a blind mouse at his visitors.
“You two are supposed to be dead,” he said. “Unless you’ve come to haunt me..?”
“We have,” Ros snapped.
“Yeah,” Beckett said as he stepped forward. “We’ve got some unfinished business.”
Stefano smiled, without humour. “If it had been up to me,” he said, a hand seeking his long-gone pair of glasses, “I would happily have let you go. I am no murderer.”
“The hired help, were you?”
“I had access to Adam, and he had access to the Hive. That was all my partner was interested in.”
He settled back on his pillows. His words were fluid, his memory crystal clear. It was yesterday for him, instead of history, receding. His movements were less stilted than Ros had expected, even after talking with his doctors. His physique was a factor in his fast-improving condition. He was a bulky man, and he’d lost far less muscle tone than he should have: a fact that was evident, merely from looking at him.
A cursory risk assessment set alarm bells off in her head. Stefano might not have been up to a marathon: but he should at least have been handcuffed to the bed.
“Do we really have to do this now?” he asked, looking bored. “It’s almost time for lunch. The kind that doesn’t come in a tube...”
Ros took a seat by the bed. Beckett hovered next to her like her security detail. Stefano rolled his eyes, but there was a hungry gleam in them.
“I’m going to need dessert,” he said.
“Why did you do it, Stefano?” Ros asked.
“For the money, of course.”
“You let Adam Mosby die for money?” Beckett gave a sceptical laugh. “Not much of a friend, were you?”
He’d seen Stefano’s reaction to Adam’s death, as clearly as Ros had. The question struck home, sure as a bullet to the heart. Stefano seethed with indignation, dropping the bravado, along with his guard.
“I was the best friend he ever had,” he insisted. “Mosby getting shot was never part of the plan. We needed him alive. He was the one who was supposed to be stealing the files for us.”
“But they weren’t the only thing you’d been getting him to steal,” Ros said.
“Oh please,” Stefano said. “How he got me the money was a matter for him. It would have been less work for me to rob a bank. Do you know, I actually thought he might want to help me? I shouldn’t have had to threaten him: he forced me into it. Imagine if I’d retracted all the confessions I’d ever made... Told the authorities everything Adam really got up to in his delinquent youth, and cheerfully pinned on me...”
“Blackmail,” Beckett said. “Solid plan. Pity you didn’t realise Wymark and Zephyr had got there before you.”
Stefano frowned. “Who are Wymark and Zephyr?”
Beckett rolled his eyes. “You know who—”
“I’ve got a better question,” Ros said, cutting in. She leaned forward, even though it put her in Stefano’s reach. “Who’s Ellen?”
Beckett had wandered to the other side of the bed, covering their bases. He stared at Ros, not following. Stefano muttered something under his breath.
“How long before the wedding did you find out? Was it a lucky guess? Or did something else tip you off?”
“Hang on a minute, Ros,” Beckett protested, but she put a hand up to stop him.
“Tell Beckett who Ellen is, Stefano.”
“Lime jelly,” he said. “We had lime jelly yesterday.”
“With ice cream,” Ros assured him.
“She’s Adam’s wife,” he said, satisfied by the bargain.
Beckett frowned. “But Alex is—”
“Not Mrs Mosby at all. Technically. He’d already married Ellen, back when they were at university,” Ros explained. She turned back to Stefano. “You went to the wedding, didn’t you?”
He smirked. “It was a rather less grand affair than his next one, that’s for sure.”
Beckett was still playing catch-up, fumbling about in the dark. “Why would Adam invite you to the wedding,” he asked, not unreasonably, “if you’d been blackmailing him?”
“A very convincing lie,” Stefano said, sounding approving. “He didn’t invite me—but he made out he had when I showed up at the reception. He smiled at me, looked me right in the eye and said he thought I couldn’t make it. A skill he picked up during our eventful stint in the drama society. Oh, he kept his cool, but he had to, because his new wife was with us. All his smart new friends... But I was the one who knew him best. And believe me: on the inside, Mosby was shaking like a leaf.”
“So when I was getting the drinks and I saw you,” Ros said, “you were arguing about Ellen.”
Stefano nodded. “El was the ace up my sleeve. But I’ve always lost my shirt in poker: I played it before the wedding. I even gave Adam her phone number. For old times’ sake...”
He stared into the distance. “I just wanted them to remember.”
“But Adam called your bluff,” Ros said. “He didn’t call her, either. He went ahead with the wedding anyway.”
“He said he’d forgotten all about it, until I reminded him. It was paperwork to him: not a big deal. He claimed wifey number two was so set on dragging him down the aisle that he hadn’t had time to sort it out.”
“Sounds about right,” Beckett muttered, sounding so bitter that Ros wondered if she’d heard it correctly.
“When I pushed him, he got all angry and self-righteous. He never used to be so much of a whiner. He said I was spoiling his big day, and it was nothing to do with me anyway. It wasn’t as if I’d ever been best man material...” Stefano’s face twisted in hurt. “He changed his tune very quickly when I threatened to spill the beans. He was desperate for me not to tell his pretty little wife...”
He stretched out the last word so it dripped tautly with sarcasm. Beckett considered his words, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “He should have told her himself,” he said, directing it at Ros. “She already forgave him for the stealing. Why not try and be honest, for a change?”
“Because the longer you leave something unsaid,” Ros said, “the harder it becomes to say it.”
Beckett didn’t answer. He walked over to the window, a frosted crack dividing it at the centre.
Stefano glanced between them. “He never would have,” he said. “He’d have done anything to keep me quiet. He would have helped us, if I’d had long enough with him.” His eyes turned wistful. “I know he would.”
“I don’t think so,” Ros said, puncturing the fantasy.
Stefano’s face hardened. “We’ll never know now, will we?”
“Even if Beckett and I hadn’t come along and given your friend a plan B, he’d have refused. I think he’d had enough of dancing to somebody else’s tune...especially yours. You didn’t expose him when you first realised he wasn’t divorced from Ellen. You were interested in money: but you were much more invested in recreating history.”
“I think,” he said slowly, “that Mosby wasn’t the angel he liked to make out.”
“No, he certainly wasn’t,” Ros agreed. “Did you know the Hive had sacked him for stealing from them?”
“Not until the wedding,” he admitted.
Beckett’s shoulders heaved in a snigger.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” Stefano protested. “The Hive is notoriously lax about security. He would still have had access to the codes we needed.”
“How much did you know about the credit cards and loans?” Ros said, going in for the kill.
Beckett turned back to her. He was visibly struggling to take in the revelations being fired at him from every direction. “Hold up. What credit cards and loans are we talking about?”
“He took them out in Alex’s name,” Ros told him. “Lots and lots of them, totalling tens of thousands of pounds. That’s how he met most of Stefano here’s demands.”
“Huh,” Beckett managed.
“Easier to go to his rich family,” Stefano said. “Or play some poker. He was a lot better at it than me... Of course he wouldn’t choose either, when push came to shove. A heroic agent was what he aspired to be, not what he really was. It was a matter of time before he reverted to form.”
“Didn’t you feel even the slightest bit guilty,” Ros asked, “at everything you’d put him through?”
“He brought it on himself,” Stefano said, going cold. “I took the fall for him, time and time again. In return, he stole my best friend. He cut both of us loose, at the first opportunity. He should have gone to prison, after the accident. No government career for the golden boy, then.”
“What accident?” Beckett said.
“You’re not much of a secret agent, are you?” said Stefano. “There’s just no end to the things you don’t know.”
“Funny,” Beckett said, “I was about to say the same to you...”
“Beckett!” Ros hissed.
Beckett clamped his mouth shut. Stefano licked his dry lips.
“I’d like some cake, too,” he said. “Chocolate, I think. Mint frosting. Like the walls.”
“Are we absolutely sure he’s not brain-damaged?” Beckett said, much too loud. Stefano ignored him, looking to Ros. She nodded.
“Adam was driving. A woman was injured: paralysed. A sad affair, all round.”
“Oh, Adam,” Ros said softly. She exchanged a glance with a grave-faced Beckett.
“I would have done time for it, if my family hadn’t bribed the magistrate. I shed some crocodile tears and escaped with community service and six points on my licence. It was Adam’s victim who received a life sentence. As for Adam himself...he got off scot-free.”
“Except for the rather large favour he owed you,” Ros said. “Which you called in a few years later.”
“I told him I’d ruin his career if he didn’t pay up. I didn’t tell him to con some brain dead blonde. If I had been calling the shots, believe me—things would have been very different. I would never have let him be so stupid as to fall in love.” He looked into the distance. “Again.”
“You must have felt something,” Ros persisted. “Showing up and ruining what was supposed to be the happiest day of his life.”
“Second happiest,” Beckett corrected sourly. His intransigence was pushing Ros past her limits. She shot him a glare.
“I shouldn’t have had to,” Stefano said, a vein in his forehead pulsing, presaging a rant. “I shouldn’t have had to do any of it! Mosby was a liar, but I told him everything, at the wedding. He’d have been back in time to drive off into the sunset, if he’d only played along. He should have just helped me. Out of guilt. The goodness of his heart. Because he cared about me, and not his stupid career...”
“You were asking the impossible,” Ros said. “He paid up the first time to save himself. But discovering the kind of people you’d fallen in with...what the blackmail money was really paying for... You pushed him too far.” Stefano’s face fell. His intentions in reuniting his friends had been anything but noble. But the longing in his eyes reminded her, in a sad sort of way, of Terry.
“So what were you going to do? You didn’t know about us yet, and your friend was waiting outside with one eye on his watch and a loaded gun in his pocket. You said you’d have let us go. Would you have let Adam go too...and faced the consequences?”
“I had a gun in my pocket too,” he said.
“Give me some credit, Stefano. The last thing you wanted to do was turn a gun on him—or you’d have done it sooner. You told us yourself: you wasted all that time, trying to talk him round. If you’d pulled the gun on him from the start, it wouldn’t have ended in a fight. He’d have been safely in that limousine with you, long before Beckett and I ever walked into the room.
“You killed him, Stefano,” she said, in final judgement. “As surely as your partner did. As surely as you killed all those people. All those hostages.”
He looked stricken. The way he had when Adam had been shot, right in front of his eyes. But he shoved it away, as ruthlessly as he had his old friend’s body.
“None of that was my idea,” he said. “The hostages were down to your friends, playing silly games. If they’d given us safe passage, like we asked, they could have all gone free. Once we were safely away, we would have told your friends where you were. That was the deal.”
“Except that’s not what happened,” Beckett spat. He loomed over Stefano, a menacing presence. “We were never part of the deal. Maybe you were going to release the hostages—but you never said anything about us. That place you locked us in was due for demolition the same day. That’s why you chose it. Things were going pear-shaped. You knew there was a good chance you’d be caught. You wanted us to die, so we couldn’t testify against you... Or maybe just for revenge.”
Stefano grimaced in polite distaste. He flexed his legs underneath the sheets of the bed.
“I’m going to make sure you’re put away for life for what you did to us,” Beckett said, pulling back before Ros had to intervene.
“It wasn’t me,” Stefano said, holding to the line, right to the end.
“Your mate is six feet under. Who else do you think’s going to carry the can?”
Stefano’s knuckles tightened around his sheets. His right eye began to twitch.
“What a surprise,” said Beckett. “Something else you don’t know.”
“Beckett,” Ros said quietly; warningly. But Beckett wasn’t listening.
“He’s dead and you’re here,” he said, “and you’re going to take the rap for every single thing he did. You’ll be thrown into a cell so fast you’ll never see the sun again.” He jabbed a finger at the cracked glass behind him. There was so much rage in him that Ros felt certain it would have shattered, if he’d touched it. “Take a good long look—go on. So you can remember what it looks like.”
Stefano’s jaw was clenched. “I want to see a lawyer.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Beckett went on, as if he’d never spoken. “You didn’t give us any notice before you locked us up and threw away the key. It’s only fair I give you chance to appreciate the world while you still can. Believe me—you don’t appreciate anything until you think you’ve seen it for the last time.”
He glanced back at the window. The wintry light had sunk into shadow. Ros watched, bells pealing ever louder, as he stepped away from it, and closer to Stefano. She realised why he’d been so reluctant to question him. He hadn’t wanted Jan’s permission. He hadn’t trusted himself to be around him.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “We don’t have the death penalty in this country. So chances are you’ll spend the rest of your life sitting in a cushy little cell, shovelling sweets down your cakehole. You’ll never know how it felt when you left us there to die...”
In one swift movement, he grabbed the front of Stefano’s gown, and dragged him roughly from his pillows.
“Nurse!” Stefano yelped, groping for the panic button, as Ros leapt from her seat.
Beckett had pulled one arm back, as if to punch Stefano. Ros didn’t waste time trying to talk him down; she rushed around to his side of the bed, and grabbed it. Beckett grunted in protest, muscles rigid. He allowed her to drag him away from the bed, and back to the window.
“What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded. She glanced over her shoulder, but Stefano seemed to have tuned them out. His eyes were closed, hands clasped together, as if he was meditating. “What if he tries to use that as part of his defence? The Bureau chief assaulting a man who just woke up from a four-month coma? That’s going to look really good in court, Beckett...”
He ran a hand through his hair, anger cooling into frustration. “I can’t get it out of my head. What he did... What might have happened...”
“It didn’t,” she said firmly. “We are still here. We have so much to look forward to, Nick.”
He started shaking his head. Ros tightened her grip on his arm.
“You can’t let it take over your life. If you do that...if you give either of them that power...then they win.”
Beckett locked eyes with her, chin quivering. It hurt her heart to see him so vulnerable. She moved her hand to his cheek, and left it there.
“Come here,” he said, and pulled her into a hug. She closed her eyes, caution forgotten as she relaxed into the warmth of his arms. She forgot all about Stefano, about Christa, about the wedding—about everything.
But suddenly she felt Beckett tense. “Oi!” he yelled.
Ros pulled back and turned to see Stefano, charging towards them like a man possessed, his eyes wild and bulging. He shoved her with colossal strength, sending her flying into the breathing machinery lying abandoned at the side of the room. She crashed into it, landing heavily.
Beckett had instinctively ducked out of the path of the juggernaut heading his way. But Stefano had too much momentum to stop. Ros’s hair felt sticky with blood; it trickled down her forehead as she looked up, and watched Stefano hit the window. The cold, fragile glass gave way under his weight. In a thunder of shards, he crashed straight through. There was a blood-curdling shout, receding into the distance, and a muffled thud. And then there was silence.
An icy breeze swept into the room. Beckett leaned over the frame in horror. He dragged his eyes away and went over to Ros, a tangle of limbs on the floor.
Beckett nodded, wordless, as she took hold of his hand to pull herself up. She dropped it and fell back, the motion flooding her with pain. He frowned and dropped to his knees.
“Did you hit your head..?”
Ros hadn’t even considered what a blow to that might do. She choked back an ironic laugh and took Beckett’s hand again, trying to compose herself. She’d fallen awkwardly, twisted her ankle, cracked yet another rib. She’d be black and blue by the weekend, not for the first time. It was nothing.
But it didn’t feel like nothing. It felt more like something that part of her had been expecting from the second she’d found out she was pregnant. She felt bruised, and tender; drowning in a rising tide of panic. Tears sprang to her eyes as she looked up at Beckett, remembering how careless she’d been: determined to carry on as normal, with only Jan to hold her back. Because Jan knew. Of course she did. Jan knew and saw everything. She’d probably worked it out, long before Ros would have.
A tremor ran through her, as much from terror as the dropping temperature. “Beckett, it hurts.”
“Yeah, well, you took quite a tumble,” he said, shrugging off his jacket, making a valiant attempt to hide his concern.
Ros squeezed her eyes shut and held her stomach, feeling him leaning over her. His jacket dropped, feather-light, on her shoulders. “What if I lose my baby?” she said.
She heard his sharp inhale of breath. Suddenly she didn’t have the energy to try to hide the truth. She couldn’t quite remember now why it had been so important to her, to keep it a secret.
“I should have told you...I’m so sorry...”
“Sssh,” he said gently. “You can tell me later.”
He cupped her cheek, not letting her get it out. “Stay there and try not to move. I’m going to get some help.”
She heard his quick footsteps leaving the room, and tried to hold back the tears.
Ed hadn’t lived up to his vow to tell Alex the truth about Adam, and his latest little secret. He’d been on the verge of stammering out an excuse. Another lie. Anything, to keep her from discovering that he’d tracked down Adam’s real wife and was having a cosy tête-à-tête with her.
Ellen had done most of the talking. She’d looked sorry for Alex, and even for Ed, and she’d stood her ground and got the story out. The colour had drained from Alex’s face when she’d told them about the car accident, and her suspicions about Adam’s involvement. Her blue eyes stood out like brilliant orbs against the parchment of her skin. Ed had felt certain she was going to punch Ellen, or him. But instead, she’d turned on her heels, disappearing into the crowd.
She must have used the tracker in his Jeep to follow him. But two could play at that game. Ed wasn’t about to let history repeat itself. He refused to give up on her, when he had no idea what she was thinking...or what she might be distressed enough to do.
He’d placed a few calls and got back on the road, grateful the snow had stopped. Angela had come through, but there was radio silence from Ros, and Beckett had gone off-grid about the same time. It was weird; an echo that tugged at his gut.
The autumn leaves had long since fallen. Their skeletons carpeted the path between the graves, powdered with white. Bones upon bones, dust upon dust. Ed noted the names on the headstones as he passed, his own mark of respect. He’d been to the cemetery once before, for the funeral. Ros’s service excluded, it was the first he’d attended in years.
That had been a summer’s day, but the place looked different, and even more foreboding, in the winter damp. Alex’s Jeep lay abandoned outside; he couldn’t rely on gizmos now. Instinct guided him deeper, towards Adam’s final resting place, and towards Alex.
A strange sound took over as his homing beacon. It was a mixture of grunting, and sobbing, and the ring of metal, meeting marble. Ed broke into a run. He passed a line of bare trees, marking the edge of the path, and finally spied Alex. She had a hammer in her hand and was hitting it against the gravestone, tears mingling with sweat from the effort.
Ed snuck up behind her and pinned her arms in the air as she lifted the hammer for another blow. He glanced down, at the inscription on the headstone.
Adam Mosby—Beloved Husband and Son
Forever in our hearts
He grappled with Alex, winning the upper hand. He grabbed the hammer from her hands, ignoring her shouts of protest. She turned around, breathing heavily, and wiped a grimy tear from her cheek. There was a glaze to her eyes, almost feral, that Ed had never seen before, and hoped never to see again.
“He’s not my husband, is he?”
“That doesn’t mean you have to deface his grave!” Ed yelled as Alex aimed a roundhouse kick at his hand to try to relieve him of the hammer. “For God’s sake, Alex—let the guy rest in peace.”
“He doesn’t deserve any peace,” she spat. “I hope he burns in hell.”
“You don’t mean that...”
“The hell I don’t.”
Ed ducked a fist aimed in his direction and took a wary step backwards. Alex might have looked tiny and defenceless, but she was anything but.
“Where’d you get this thing anyway?”
“Tool kit in the car,” Alex said as she adopted a fighting stance. “Give it back.”
“It’s property of the Bureau,” Ed said, “and I just impounded it.”
“Then I’ll have to take it off you, won’t I?”
She flipped another vicious kick in his direction, forcing Ed to dive to his left and roll away. He stood up, brushing the muck off his jacket.
“This is not the way to deal with it, Alex...”
“What else do you suggest? Perform a séance? Ask Adam why he did it?”
“Well, why not?” Ed said as Alex gave up playing karate kid and made a dive for the hammer. He hid it behind his back, buying time. “Why else would you come here?”
She hesitated. “Because...”
“Because you want to chip away at that headstone until there’s nothing left of it? What’s that going to solve?”
“Nothing,” she admitted. “But it’ll make me feel a whole lot better.”
“I don’t think so, Alex. I think you’re here because you’ve got things you need to ask him, and this is the one place you get to do it. So go on, then. Turn around. Ask him.”
He was concentrating so hard on Alex that the hammer had fallen limp in his hand. His reaction time had slowed to a crawl, and Alex took full advantage. She sprang forward, and snatched it from him. She raised it in the air with both hands, eyes blazing, and for a second he thought she was going to hit him. His hands shot up in an instinctive block, but she turned around instead, facing the grave.
She stopped. Time seemed to do the same.
Ed edged forward, drawing level. Alex stared down at the headstone, hammer still raised above her head. She seemed like another pale tree, rooted to the spot. But then she snarled and brought the weapon down on the stone, trying to chip away the inscription.
“Why—did—you—do—it?” she screamed, between blows. “WHY?”
“Go on, Alex,” Ed encouraged, from a safe vantage point. “Tell him. Let it all out.”
“You stole all that money—and you lied! You married her—and you lied! You told me you wanted to spend the rest of your life with me! And you did. You did...”
She dropped the hammer and sank to her knees in the soft mud before the grave, crushing the fresh flowers that had been placed there.
“How can I ever believe a word you said to me, when so much was a lie?” She thumped a fist against the headstone, tears streaming. “I don’t know what was real, and what wasn’t...”
Ed knelt down beside her as she sobbed, breaths coming in ragged gasps. He waited until the tears subsided. Alex looked across at him with wet, shining eyes.
“I’m never going to. Am I?”
Ed smiled sadly. He’d learned the hard way that he had to be honest, no matter how much it broke her heart. It was breaking his to see her like this. He’d wanted Adam out of the way—but he hadn’t wanted him dead. And he’d wanted Alex to get over him—but not like this. Not ever like this. He’d wanted her all to himself, and since Adam had died, he’d had her. Only not in the way he’d spent so long wanting.
He guessed he should have been more careful what he wished for.
“If he’d cheated on me, it might have been easier,” she said, choking back another sob. “At least I could square that with the debts, and the deceit, but that girl...”
“Ellen,” Ed supplied.
“He told me about his exes, Ed. All the girls he’d fancied at uni. It was how he manipulated me into changing his record for him. I thought it was my idea!”
“He never mentioned her?”
“Not once. I’d think she was lying, too, if I hadn’t heard the voicemail he left her...on the day of our wedding.”
“You’ve been investigating this too,” Ed realised.
“But she never got it. She just told me she hadn’t seen him for years. I mean, is that supposed to make it better? Because I can’t see past the fact that he said those vows to me, knowing it meant nothing.”
She rubbed her forehead, kneading it violently. She rested it in her hands. “How can one man have so many secrets?”
“Everybody’s got them,” Ed said, feeling like his was written all over his face. He was relieved Alex wasn’t looking at him. “But usually they’re not quite so destructive.”
“I thought Adam was the love of my life,” Alex said. “I really believed I knew him, inside and out. That’s what marriage is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Knowing each other. Sharing everything. Being completely faithful, and completely honest.” She looked up at Ed. “Maybe I’m naïve.”
“Of course you’re not. Everyone wants the fairy tale.”
“Oh, Ed, it’s nothing but a fantasy.”
“It’s faith,” he said. “You can’t let Adam destroy that.”
“He already has,” she said as another tear trickled down her cheek. “I don’t know what to think anymore, Ed... I don’t know what to do. I don’t think I can cope with it...”
“You’re going to have to learn how to, Alex,” he said. He looked at the grave, realising he’d never seen Sasha’s. What was left of her had been flown back to her family in Denmark. They’d had a funeral for her, over there; Ed hadn’t gone. He thought now it might have helped him, to have that closure. To get at the end what she’d denied him, right from the start.
What would he have said to Sasha, if it was her grave he stood at? Contemplating what she’d meant to him, and the ways in which she’d shaped him?
Sorry you walked out on me. Sorry you came back. Sorry I couldn’t save you...not even from yourself.
“It won’t hurt so much, one day. It’ll get a little less every day. And every one that passes takes you closer to the one when the pain goes away...and all you feel is the scar.”
Sasha, Sasha, Sasha. The wind whispered it, into the trees, into the sky. It carried her away, and let her go.
Alex managed a smile. “Ed, when did you get so— So grown up?”
He stared at her, letting it settle in. Liking the sound of it, when it came from her lips. “There’s this word,” he started, “in Khazbek...”
“There are thousands of words in Khazbek,” Alex said.
“Khavelak. It means careless. Or I thought it did. But it means something else, too. It means careful. Depends how you balance the syllables. It can be both.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You can be both,” Ed said. And maybe he meant himself: daredevil and paper-pusher. Team player, and task master. Young at heart, and adult enough to appreciate it.
But he meant Adam, as well. “Adam made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “He hurt someone and then lied about it. He lied to you. There’s no getting past any of it. But it doesn’t mean he didn’t love you.”
“You told me that before,” Alex said. “Before her.”
“Because I believe it. And if I find out he had a hundred other wives before you, I’ll go on believing it. You see—” He stopped, not sure how to put it, or whether to say it. But risk was what made life worth living. “It’s the way he looked at you. It was the same way I looked at you.”
Alex’s eyes widened. “You?”
He nodded, taken aback by her surprise. It had been obvious enough to Ros and Jan. Always and again: people saw only the things they wanted to. “Well, like I said. Everybody’s got their secrets.”
“I—I know,” she stuttered. “But—I—I didn’t realise you still—”
“Jeez, Alex. You must have noticed how I felt about you.” Ed let out an incredulous laugh. “I was so jealous of Adam. Eaten up with it. I hated the idea that he could waltz in and take you away from me.”
“He didn’t take me away.”
“It didn’t feel like that. I let Sasha get in my head, and then we went on that date. I never thought you’d even look at anyone else. What an ego, huh? I thought I could make it up...and then Sunstorm happened...and then Adam was on the scene. And then it was too late.”
Alex regarded him with caution. “You said—felt.”
“Yeah, you know, I guess I’ve grown out of that too—”
“Don’t lie to me, Ed,” she said. “Please don’t lie to me.”
He took hold of her hands and looked at her seriously. For once in his life, it didn’t occur to him to make a joke about it. Baring your soul was no laughing matter, even for him.
“All right. Enough of the past tense.” He took a deep breath, another moment of confession upon him. “It’s how I feel. I’ve never stopped...”
Alex had cocked her head to the side, looking touched, but Ed was hit by how ridiculous it was. Place, time, everything. He found himself chuckling.
“Oh, I don’t know—this?” He gave a belly laugh. It was so him it hurt. Fifty percent serious, fifty percent silly. “I finally tell you how I feel, while I’m sitting on your husband’s grave.” He shook his head, congratulating himself. “Smooth, man. Really smooth.”
“He wasn’t my husband,” Alex reminded him.
Ed didn’t get a chance to argue. Alex bent up, and kissed him gently on the lips. He closed his eyes, cherishing it for a long moment. The harsh light of day poured in as he opened them again, pulling back.
“Even if you weren’t legally married, Alex, it doesn’t mean you didn’t love him, or that you’re not grieving for him.”
“That was before I found out the truth about him.”
“You don’t just fall out of love with someone.” He lifted his shoulders, with a small smile. “Hey. I should know.”
Alex stared at him, looking hurt. “What are you saying? You don’t want me?”
“Only if—” Ed smiled flirtatiously at her, his natural optimism filtering through. “When—it’s what you want too.”
He thought back to the warning Ros had given him the night before. It had been sound advice. He was crazy in love with Alex, but he had to tread softly. It was a complicated situation: he had to guard his own heart, along with hers. The last thing he wanted was to win her love and then lose it because she hadn’t given it to him for the right reasons.
“Look, Alex, it’s been, what? Four months? There’s no way you’re ready to jump into something else. Give yourself time, then see how you feel and what you want. If it really is me, then I’ll still be here.”
“You can’t make that sort of promise, Ed. What if you meet someone else? What if you...” She swallowed hard, glancing back at the gravestone. “If Adam had lived...do you think...do you think he would have told me?”
“I don’t know, Alex.”
“I’d like to think he would have.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “I’d like to think that too.”
She traced a finger along the inscription of Adam’s name. “We always think we’ve got so much time, don’t we?”
It was a subject too morbid and serious even for the new, grown-up Ed. He grinned, trying to lighten the mood.
“I tell you what. If I get hit by a bus before you make your mind up, you can come and hit my headstone with a hammer too.”
Alex examined the unmarked marble with a rueful smile. “I didn’t do much damage, did I?”
“Why else do you think I suggested it?”
It earned him a playful swipe on the arm as she stood. She wiped the mud from her trousers, dusting down everywhere else.
“Between the fourth and fifth floors,” she said, off Ed’s quizzical gaze. “I rescued myself.”
He smiled. “Of course you did.”
“Come on. Let’s get back to the Bureau. They’ll be wondering where we are.”
“We’re not the only ones who’ve gone AWOL,” Ed said, leaping to his feet. He shook off a questioning glance from Alex. Ros and Beckett disappearing again felt like more than coincidence. It felt connected, somehow. Like answers were staring him straight in the face, and he’d gone and lost his specs.
“By the way,” Alex said, leaning towards him conspiratorially, “I’ve got some hot gossip for you.”
“If it’s about Jan and Dent, I do not want to know.”
“Jan and Dent?” Alex said. She screwed her face up. “Seriously?”
“And if it’s about Ros and Graeme, I’m already way ahead of you...”
“Actually, it’s about Beckett and Christa.”
Ed walked a little way off, stopping dead as the wheels began to turn. “Oh, man,” he said. “I knew it. I knew it...”
He waited for a response and realised Alex hadn’t followed him from the grave. He turned around and saw her staring at the headstone. As he waited she kissed the tips of the fingers on one hand. She bent and pressed them against the marble.
She turned around and linked arms with Ed, leaving the grave behind. Not once did she look back.
For the first time in months, neither did Ed.
Beckett couldn’t get the image of Stefano’s twisted body, glittering like a broken chandelier, out of his head.
When he’d gone to the ground floor to call it in, he’d seen that Stefano had died with a triumphant smile on his face. Accident it might have been, but Beckett suspected he’d had no intention of remaining a prisoner. He’d relished having people at his mercy, but couldn’t take it in kind. Death was an escape sometimes, too. It was preferable to spending the rest of his life at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
There’d be an inquiry, since SSD had been supposed to be guarding him. The final responsibility for his death fell to them. He and Ros could easily be implicated, being the sole witnesses, with iron-clad motives for murder: but there were long odds against it. The whole thing would, far more likely, be quietly brushed under the carpet.
Stefano’s death was convenient: for the Bureau, and for everyone who’d been involved in his murderous rampage four months before. Too many innocent people had lost their lives for anyone to shed any tears for the man who had helped it happen. It spared the expense of a trial, and the ordeal of the witness box. It closed the door on a painful past chapter.
He'd be sleeping a lot easier, from now on...if there wasn't so much else that was keeping him awake.
His concern now was for Ros: the one thing he didn’t blame Stefano for. Beckett blamed himself. It resounded in his head, a litany of sins, guilt as sharp in the day as it was at 2am. If only he’d persuaded her not to come in the first place. If only he hadn’t goaded Stefano. If only he’d been first in the line of fire. He’d let his feelings get the better of him, over and over again.
Ros’s eyes were closed by the time he was allowed into her room. He stood for a moment, watching her, unsettled by the stitches lined above her eye; the bruises blooming beneath it. He pulled a chair over, careful to limit the noise. But the second he sat down, her eyes flew open.
“Beckett, what are you doing here?”
“I never left,” he said, leaning over and pecking her on the forehead. “I’ve been here all day.”
“You should have gone back to the Bureau.”
He shook his head, incapable of hiding the fear. “You really scared me back there, Ros.”
She looked touched. “Oh Beckett, don’t be stupid. I was never in any danger.”
“I, er, spoke to your doctor,” he said, watching her fingers make nervous twists in the bed sheet.
“Did you, now?”
“Yeah, well, he went and assumed—” He cleared his throat. “And one thing led to another, and—” He abandoned the explanation, turned runaway train. “Bed rest, eh?”
“They’re happy with everything but my blood pressure,” Ros said, but she seemed a little distant, suddenly. “They think it’s all going to be fine.”
“I’m sure it will be,” Beckett said, in his softest voice.
“I’m not,” she said, and he realised she was fighting back tears. “I’m like the Typhoid Mary. Everyone around me keeps dying.”
Terry, Beckett might have assumed, before their meeting with Stefano. “Adam?” he asked, in its aftermath.
“If I hadn’t interfered...” One tear escaped and carved a path down her cheek. She closed her eyes for a moment, something replaying. “I could have saved him, Nick.”
“No, you couldn’t,” he said, and maybe they were talking about Adam. But it felt like they were also, finally, talking about Terry. “I couldn’t.”
“I know,” Ros said.
“Ros, you told me earlier that I couldn’t let what happened take over my life. Now I’m telling you the same thing. You have to stop thinking about what might have been. Okay? It’s not good for you. For, er, either of you.”
He looked away from her, unable to meet her eyes. Too awkward, or maybe too afraid, to see what was in them. “Why didn’t you tell me, Ros?”
“You had the wedding to think about,” she said.
It was diplomacy at its finest. He knew the real answer. When they hadn’t been avoiding each other any conversation they’d had was strained, littered with subtext about their relationship and its messy end. Every time they’d been on the verge of talking, really talking, something had interrupted, or one of them had said the wrong thing.
It was usually him who’d done that. He’d brushed off every overture Ros had made with a cold word, or prideful indifference. They’d been so close once, but after Sunstorm, there had been nothing. Vacuum between them; an empty space in his life that he’d struggled to fill.
“I don’t care about the wedding,” Beckett said, since diplomacy never had been his strong suit.
Ros stared at him, mouth hanging half-open in surprise. He’d fooled Alex too, and even Ed—well, kind of. As for Jan, she’d seen straight through him. She’d needled him every step of the way, pushing him to face up to how he really felt, before it was too late.
Jan knew about regrets, and missed opportunities. And she knew—as he did—that the prospect of life with the woman he loved should have sent him racing for the altar. The idea of marrying Christa filled him with nothing but dread. He liked her well enough: but if he’d married every woman he’d ever liked, he’d have had more wives than Henry VIII. It was easier to be a coward, to keep up the lie, than to admit the truth.
“I don’t want to marry Christa, Ros. I didn’t even propose to her—I let Ed think I did. She suggested it, and I said yes because I thought I owed it to her. I suppose I felt bad about letting her down, because I said I’d leave the Bureau and I didn’t...and because I slept with you.”
He took a deep breath. “It wasn’t just the circumstances, Ros. You know that, don’t you? You have to know that.”
She didn’t answer. Hope died inside him as he waited, taking a dose of his own bitter medicine.
“There was so much baggage between us... After everything that happened... I guess I convinced myself I didn’t have any feelings left.”
That sparked her into life. She looked angry; it was better than nothing. “You must have realised that I still did.”
“Christa said I must have known how you felt...” He shrugged. “I said it was over.”
The stitches lifted with her eyebrow, making her hiss. “Did you?”
“I’ve never been good with feelings, Ros. You should know that better than anyone. I don’t even know what I’m feeling half the time, let alone anyone else.” He grinned goofily at her. “You know how much you like calling me stupid.”
She softened. Smiled back at him. “Sometimes I prefer dim.”
“I thought I was over you. I thought it was all ancient history. And then the wedding happens, and we end up... And it felt right, Ros. Really right. It made me realise I still felt exactly the same.”
Ros watched him as he spoke, her head at an angle, expression unreadable.
“I was angry about it,” he admitted. “I was angry with myself. I mean, what happened with Terry—you really hurt me. What kind of idiot gets dumped on from a great height like that and still goes back for more? It made everything so complicated again. And there was Christa to think about—and Graeme...”
She considered the confession. Beckett kicked himself for rambling on, dropping it on her at the worst possible time. It was the last thing she needed.
“About Graeme,” Ros said.
“I know, I know. Sorry. I should have called him. And your mum. I completely forgot—what with Stefano...”
He dug out his pager and scrolled through another message. They'd become increasingly strident. The latest one just said BECKETT, with a string of exclamation marks; he could hear Jan's voice when he read it. News of Stefano’s demise had obviously filtered back to her.
“We can fill her in later,” Ros said, sneaking a look.
“I can. You’re going nowhere.”
She made a mock salute as he replaced the pager. “Listen,” he began, screwing his eyes in trepidation, “forget about Stefano for a second, and tell me something.”
“How, um—” He paused, steeling himself. The moment of truth. “How pregnant are you, exactly?”
Ros bit her lip, cheeks flushing. Beckett saw his own nerves on her face. She reached for his hand and tried to say something, but she didn’t need to; the look in her eyes had given it away. His breath caught in his throat. He stood up and backed away, grappling with the enormity of it. He’d hit the wall by the time he could function again.
“So what, were you ever going to tell me? Or were you going to lie to me forever?” He jabbed furiously at his chest. “I had a right to know!”
“You were planning your future with Christa!”
“I would have given it up in a heartbeat if I’d known! And I will—now I’ve got a reason to do it—”
“Our baby is not an excuse for you to weasel your way out of an engagement you didn’t want in the first place,” Ros snapped.
“Our baby,” he repeated, too awestruck to correct himself. He sank back onto the bed.
“This is exactly why I didn’t want to tell you—”
“Oh what,” Beckett bit back, “so you want me to marry her?”
“No!” She threw up her hands. “Yes. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want you to feel like you have any obligations. I want you to do whatever makes you happy.”
“This makes me happy. Yeah, it’s a shock...but it’s the best shock I’ve ever had. How could you think I’d want to walk away from it?”
But Ros looked troubled. “I need to know you’re saying these things for the right reasons, Nick. Not because you don’t want the baby, because I always knew you would—because you think you can’t have it and have Christa. I would never stop you from seeing your own child. And I’d never use it to try to lure you back to me, either.”
“Lure me? Lure me?.. For God’s sake, Ros, what kind of... You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you?” He edged closer, taking her hand. “Yes, I want the baby. And I want you too—because I love you. I love you because you’re brilliant, and beautiful, and every bit as stubborn as I am. I even love the way you keep calling me stupid. When it comes to you, Ros? I am.”
Ros started to laugh, embarrassed by the eulogy. But her smile soon faded. “Nick, I’m flattered, really I am. But Christa is madly in love with you. She’s a nice person. A normal person. You’ve got a chance to be happy together.”
“But it’s not what I want.”
“I love you too,” Ros said, and as he saw it shining in her eyes he wondered how he’d ever missed it. “But I can’t help thinking that if this was meant to be, we would have managed it the first time around.”
“So we get another chance. Let’s not mess it up this time.”
“Two agents don’t work. Everybody knows that.”
“Then let’s be the exception to the rule.”
Her eyes gleamed with what he thought was excitement. She always had loved breaking rules. It was one of the things that had brought them together in the first place.
“All this talk about agents,” Beckett said. “I didn’t sign up to the Bureau for some poxy title. Neither did you, and neither did Ed.”
“We signed up to the Bureau because Jan blackmailed you into it...”
“And she’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said. “But you’re missing my point. It’s who we work for. It’s not who we are, whatever Jan or my dad might tell you.”
“Then who are we?” she asked softly.
“We’re just us. A team. You and me. We belong together, Ros—we always have. And you might not like me saying it...but this is the best excuse we’re ever going to get to make it stick.”
He tilted her chin with a finger, and kissed her. Her lips curved in a smile under his. It was still there when he pulled away.
“Nick,” Ros said, “I think that’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“I haven’t even asked you to marry me yet...”
She scowled at him. “I don’t want to marry you.”
“Ros Henderson,” he said, wounded, “I’m offering to make an honest woman of you here.”
“I’m sure you are,” she said, smirking. “You have been engaged twice already. It’s becoming a habit.”
“You were engaged to Terry,” he protested.
Ros shook her head, jaw jutting in resolve. “Weddings always end in disaster. The ones we go to, anyway… With that kind of track record, I’d rather not chance it.”
“You’ll change your mind.”
“Oh, believe me, I won’t.”
They sat there holding hands, staring at each other. Ros’s other hand was resting on her belly. Beckett felt transfixed, and dazed. It seemed more like some feverish dream than reality. Ros reached out and hugged him, anchoring him to it.
“What are you going to tell Christa?” she asked eventually, still buried in his shoulder.
He untangled a strand of her hair from his fingers. “The truth. I owe her that much.”
“She’s going to hate me,” Ros said quietly. “She’s going to hate you.”
“She should,” Beckett said, pierced by a familiar pang. He eased away, tucking her hair back behind her ears. “What are you going to tell Graeme?”
“There’s nothing to tell him.”
Beckett frowned. “But you and him—”
She put a calming hand on his chest. “Are friends. We’ve only ever been friends.”
“But I thought—”
“So did Ed and Alex,” she said, looking down. “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”
Beckett stared at her in disbelief. “You let us think you were seeing him.”
“I’m not proud of it,” Ros said.
“Ros, he likes you.”
“And I like him. He’s a nice man—a good man. I’m very fond of him. So is his new girlfriend.” She smiled at him. “Maybe if you’d married Christa...”
“You wouldn’t have.”
“I see. So it’s okay for you to be with someone else, but it’s not okay for me?”
“You went out with Channing,” Beckett said, argument good as won. “Channing.”
Ros traced his jawline with the tips of her fingers, as if she was checking nothing had changed; that he’d returned to her the same way he’d left. “Then we’re even, aren’t we?”
Beckett pulled her close to him. “Always,” he said, sealing the promise with another kiss.
“You know what amazes me?” Ed asked Alex.
She shook her head, innocent as her curls. “Everything..?”
He stuck his tongue out at her. “Right when you think you know someone, they go and pull the rug out from under you, and do the last thing you’d expect them to do.”
Alex smiled and glanced around at their opulent surroundings. The weather was fine and bright, the first strains of spring in the air. Sir Anthony Fairchild’s country mansion, with its acres of rolling green fields, was the perfect setting for a wedding. Such grandeur deserved more than a ceremony conducted in the utmost secrecy, with no warning, and no guests: apart from the Bureau and Julia Fairchild, who happened to be visiting.
“Not everyone wants a big white wedding, Ed.”
“I can’t believe they went and did it,” he said. “I mean, according to Beckett, she turned him down the first time. And after the weddings we’ve been to...” He stopped, realising the faux pas.
“It’s all right,” Alex assured him. Time and distance had dulled the pain, as he'd promised. She felt, in a way, that she was luckier than Ellen. She’d lost Adam too, and then Stefano. She’d been the sole mourner, at his funeral: Alex had watched from afar, the rest of the Bureau by her side.
Both Alex and Ellen had their memories. But only Alex still had her friends.
It helped that there were no longer debts hanging over her. She’d finally agreed to Ros fixing one set, and the Hive had unexpectedly cancelled the other. They’d even backtracked on compensation; Alex had sent it, anonymously, to Adam’s victim. Dent had turned up in person, complete with flowers, to deliver the news. Alex believed his change of heart had more to do with Jan than it did with him, tearing up his beloved rule book, once and for all.
Perhaps diplomacy, or new-found common ground, had won the day. But Jan was not above blackmail, and she’d learned more than a few tricks from her team. Alex suspected the emailer had been nearer the truth than anyone would credit. Not that Jan would admit to bugging Dent...even if she had.
“Some things are much more interesting,” she said, cryptic to the last, each time Alex raised it, “if they remain a mystery.”
Ed shook her from her reverie, putting a comforting arm around her. “Sure you’re okay?”
Alex smiled and glanced up at the blue skies above them. “How could I not be on a day like this?”
“Perfect day for a wedding,” Ed agreed. He pointed out Beckett, heading over, juggling three flutes of champagne. “I don’t get why they held it here, though. This place is right out in the sticks.”
“Security, I suppose.”
“That’s all well and good, but I would have liked a bit more notice than an email ordering us to dress smartly and be here at eleven...”
Beckett caught the end as he reached them, handing over their drinks. “Stop complaining and be grateful you didn’t have to work today.”
“We might have to,” Ed pointed out. “Think about all the weddings we’ve been to. When has one of them not ended in one disaster or another?”
Beckett took it as a challenge. He considered it for a second. “Anna Fabrizi got married...”
“Yeah, after I nearly shot her.”
Alex stared at them, recognising the name. “Anna Fabrizi? The Italian Prime Minister?”
“Yeah, we went to her wedding,” Beckett said casually, as if attending the nuptials of European heads of states was something he did every day.
“She’s divorced now,” Ed said. Beckett stared at him, eyes boggling.
“If you’d spent more time watching the news, mate, and less time acting out Jessica Valentine novels...”
“Politics must not leave you much time for a personal life,” Alex mused, as Beckett aimed an elbow at Ed’s ribs.
“It’s a shame though,” Ed said. “Anna and William seemed like they were made for each other.”
“That’s what I thought about me and Adam,” Alex said, resigned. “Sometimes I wonder if there’s any such thing.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ed said. “I mean, look at our bride and groom.”
He held Alex closer, and she snuggled up to him happily. They weren’t officially beyond friendship yet, though. There’d been no rushing into things this time, but something was stopping her from taking it further, even now. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“You know,” Alex said thoughtfully, “before I got married I used to hear you all, talking about weddings and how they were all doomed.”
Ed squeaked a nervous laugh. “You didn’t take us seriously, did you?”
“We shouldn’t have been thinking like that then and you shouldn’t be doing it now,” Beckett said, in the same voice he used to give orders. “If you spent too long dwelling on everything that’s happened to us, you’d never set foot outside the door again, never mind get married.”
Alex sipped at her champagne, reassured.
“Anyway, we’re about due for a wedding that doesn’t have everything go wrong that can go wrong...”
Ed returned the dig in the ribs. Beckett’s face contorted in apology. Alex waved it off.
“That’s not all we’re due for,” Ed reminded them. “That baby could come any second.”
“It’s not due for a fortnight,” Beckett said.
“This whole circus could easily have waited. No wonder Ros is cranky.”
“You’d be cranky too in this heat if you were as pregnant as Ros is,” Alex said, fanning herself for emphasis. But then she turned to Beckett, backing Ed up. “I did think she looked a bit pale earlier...”
“Because she’s as paranoid about weddings as Ed is,” said Beckett. “Don’t worry. I’m keeping a close eye on her.”
“Me too,” Ed said. “In fact, I’m not letting any of you out of my sight. You know what happens when I do.”
“Beckett and Ros tend to disappear?” Alex offered. Ed and Beckett dared to laugh. The months separating this wedding from Alex’s had removed some of the sting from it. Even she could raise a small, ironic smile, remembering what a disaster it had been.
Ed glanced around the expansive grounds, a hand perched on his forehead like a visor, shielding his eyes from the sunlight. He pointed to a glade past the courtyard, shaded by trees that hung heavy with blossom. Alex screwed up her eyes, spying two figures there.
“Let’s go see the bride,” Ed said.
They walked at an indulgent, langorous pace, Alex holding Ed’s hand loosely. Ros and Jan were sitting together, talking. Jan turned as they approached and smiled at them. She looked radiant. She was wearing an expensively cut ivory suit, a matching hat and something Alex had removed from the relevant finger of her own left hand: a gold ring.
“Jan,” Beckett greeted her. He grinned at his colleagues, pretending to bow. “Or is it Lady Jan now?”
Jan actually blushed. Alex suppressed a chuckle at how surreal it seemed. After the secrets they’d uncovered of late, the last thing any of them had expected was for Jan to go one better. She’d decided to marry Sir Anthony Fairchild three decades after she’d first turned him down, and invited them all to the wedding: without ever once mentioning it.
Ed smirked. “Don’t you mean Lady Barb—”
“Director will be more than adequate,” she said, voice as smooth as her suit.
“You always told me you and Sir Anthony were friends,” Beckett complained. “You said all you wanted was to finish off the day at the Bureau and get home of a night to feed your cat.”
“That was a private conversation, Beckett...”
“No such thing,” he muttered. The hangdog look on his face made Alex snicker, rather unkindly. Ed cackled through his champagne.
Christa had taken his decision to call off the wedding with surprisingly good grace. Finding out Ros was pregnant was a whole different kettle of fish: Beckett had found that a tough one to explain, and since Christa had come to the Bureau to have it out, the whole team—plus the receptionist, two lift mechanics, pest control, and a contingent from the Hive—had heard him do it. The juicy development had been circulated in excruciating detail around every branch of the security services.
“You’ve been rather a naughty boy, haven’t you, Beckett?” Dent had said, unable to disguise his glee.
The one thing the rest of the world wasn’t privy to was whatever had passed between Christa and Ros. As for Beckett, he’d got off lightly, all things considered. His Jeep not so much, once Christa’s decorator friends were done giving it a respray.
“Our friendly local gossip’s going to have a field day,” Ed said. “Jan and Sir Anthony, having a red hot affair...”
Jan glared at him as she stood. “I can assure you, Ed, that sometimes companionship is more important than red hot affairs.”
He winked at Alex suggestively. She pretended not to smile.
“I don’t understand why you kept it so quiet,” pressed Beckett.
“Or why you had to do it now, of all times,” Ed said, tag-teaming. “I mean, poor Ros can’t even stand up and you drag us out to the manor on what we think is some hugely important secret mission...”
Ros’s eyes bored into him. “Poor Ros?!”
“You’re sitting down, aren’t you?”
“I am resting my legs,” she corrected tersely.
“Just make sure you keep them crossed,” said Ed. Ros swatted him smartly across the knees.
Jan gave a thin smile, acknowledging the point. “I realise the timing is poor. But Julia is only back in the UK for three days. It was very important to Tony that she be here—and it was important to me to have you all here, too.”
“Ignore him,” Ros said. “I had no intention of missing it.”
Jan squeezed her on the shoulder fondly. Ed stared at her with suspicion, a question in his narrowed eyes. You knew, Alex translated. Ros smiled.
“You know what they say,” Beckett reminded Jan, eyes full of mirth. “‘Marry in haste’...”
“I would hardly call thirty years ‘hasty’,” she said. The words were sharp, but Alex saw something soften in her, at the reminder of that long cessation. Losing Sir Anthony had given Jan a unique perspective on the romantic trials and tribulations her team had undergone. She was better acquainted with heartbreak than her brusque exterior would ever have suggested.
“Well, second time lucky...” Beckett said, finding Ros’s hand.
“Is not necessarily second best,” Jan finished for him.
“Does this mean you’re leaving the Bureau?” Alex asked. The others stared at Jan, the prospect belatedly dawning on them, but she laughed.
“Tony may be stepping down at the next election, but I can assure you—I have no plans to do the same. No,” she declared, “as of tomorrow, it is business as usual.”
“So we’ve had a day off and a wedding and nothing bad’s happened yet,” Ed said. “Don’t tell me we’ve broken our run of bad luck..?”
Beckett glanced at the sky, looking dubious.
Jan shook her head. “The forecast is perfectly clear.”
“You have to stop worrying, Ed,” Alex said with a smile, “and accept the fact that nothing else is going to happen today.”
Ros shifted in her seat, frowning. “So the part where weddings equal disaster...”
“Belongs in the past,” Alex told her, and believed it, wholeheartedly. Today was not for dwelling: it was about the here and now, and all that lay ahead. Her and Adam, Beckett and Christa...they hadn’t worked out. But this was one relationship that was going to. As for Beckett and Ros, and her and Ed, they’d been through too much to throw it away again, and waste thirty years waiting and hoping for a chance to put it right.
It felt like a new beginning. Not just for Jan and Sir Anthony, but for the Bureau.
“How about the part where lying is our superpower?” Ed said, casting a sly glance at Jan.
“Not mentioning something, Ed,” she said, “is hardly the same as lying about it...”
“There’s a reason they call it the secret service, you know,” said Alex.
Four weddings, two funerals and one baby later, it seemed that Ed was inclined to agree. “That’s as maybe,” he said. “But I kind of like to know where I stand, when it comes to my friends.” He looked at each of them in turn, face grave. “So no more of it, okay?”
Alex pulled him aside. “So you haven’t got any...I don’t know...dark secrets you’d like to tell me about?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Like the name on my birth certificate?”
“Or are we talking about the body buried under my patio?”
“Ed, I’m being serious.”
His piercing blue eyes locked onto hers. “Might be the one.”
She smiled at him, and suddenly she knew why she’d been holding back. Her experience with Adam had caused so much pain. If she gave her heart away again, it had to be to someone who would take care of it; someone she could trust.
But she could trust Ed, she knew she could. She knew every inch of him, far better than she’d ever known Adam. She didn’t doubt that now. It didn’t matter if he was filling in as Bureau chief, or playing the joker—he was being himself. She’d once rejected him for that, but now she considered it the most appealing thing about him.
“Me too,” she said as she leaned up and kissed him. It was a long, passionate kiss, and though she was dimly aware of Beckett whooping behind them, and of Jan saying something to Ros, as Ed wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer, she felt so safe and secure that she blocked out the world, and abandoned herself to the moment.
Reluctantly, they pulled apart. Alex giggled as she saw the others watching them, eyes out on stalks.
“Weddings,” Ed explained lamely.
“Too much champagne,” added Alex.
“You know,” Ros said with a smile, “I’m sure the Fairchilds have plenty of spare rooms if the two of you would like to be alone.”
“Where was I?” Ed wondered in a pointed effort to ignore her. Alex slid a hand down his arm. He slipped it into his. “Oh yeah. I was waiting for you lot to promise a spot of full disclosure.”
“Actually, Ed,” Beckett said, “I think some things would be better off kept to yourself.”
Ed looked suitably reprimanded, but Alex wasn’t fooled. She’d caught the smile at the corners of Beckett’s mouth, the warm glance he’d swapped with Jan. He was keeping up appearances; being at his belligerent best.
“That’s a shame,” Ros said as she looked up at Beckett, “because there’s something I ought to tell you.”
“What, you want to see them slobbering over each other?”
“I’ve been having contractions all afternoon.”
Ed had bent over Alex for another kiss, but he pulled away so fast upon hearing Ros’s words that he almost toppled over.
“ROS!” Beckett bellowed.
“I didn’t want to interrupt the wedding...”
He rolled his eyes. “Ros, will you never learn that sometimes people want to be interrupted? You should have told me!”
“It’s probably a false alarm...” She winced and blew out a breath. “But somehow I doubt it.”
“That’s it,” Beckett said. “We are going to the hospital, right now.”
“I’ll drive you,” Jan said, beaming in a most un-Jan like way. She held out her palm. “Your keys, Beckett?”
Beckett was sweating. He began a frantic search, patting down every pocket. Ed squeezed Alex’s hand in excitement.
“Jan,” Ros protested, “it’s your wedding day.”
“I believe it’s the bride’s prerogative to spend it however she wishes,” Jan said. “I’ll go and tell Tony what’s happening.”
“Got him under the thumb already, eh Jan?” Ed teased. Alex was expecting a scowl, but instead, her lips began to curve. Ed punched the air in triumph as Jan darted off across the gravel, holding her hat on with a hand, trying and failing to hide her smile.
Ros frowned after her. “I feel terrible.”
Beckett dropped to his knees, misinterpreting. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
“Oh trust me, Nick,” she said sweetly, “I promise you’ll be the first to know.”
Alex turned to Ed, who was grinning like the village idiot as he watched Beckett hunting through his pockets for the hundredth time. “Looks like you were right about us and weddings, then.”
He laughed at her, or possibly at Beckett. “Alex, there is a big difference between a drama and a disaster. Or should I say, a birth and a death...”
She nodded, struck by the symbolism. It was as if everything had come full circle: drawing a final, definitive line beneath the past.
“Come to think of it,” Ed said, deep in thought, “we’ve never had a birth before, have we, wedding or no wedding...”
He twirled her in a dance, and then skipped like a hyperactive schoolboy through the contents of Beckett’s pockets, scattered like confetti across the grass, joining in the search for the missing key.
Alex stood amidst the chaos, an oasis of calm. She glanced up above her at the sky, as blue as it had been on the day of her own wedding, hugging the same golden sun. They were the same—and yet they weren’t. The promise this sky held was a very different one, and it was looking down at a very different Alex. She wondered if Adam would recognise her. And, if they were to meet again one day, after everything she had learned, whether she would recognise him.
She allowed herself one brief, melancholy moment, then walked towards Ed, and the present, with a smile.
It was where she belonged. And, at long last, it was a place she was perfectly content to be.