It is always a mistake to get emotionally involved with your agents.
I walked through the house one more time, checking that everything was as perfect as it could be. The chairs, worn and with fraying seats, were set around the table. Between the table and the fireplace lay a cheap nylon rug, in a colour unknown in nature. The mantelpiece was neat and on it sat the large gold-coloured vase with the strange Egyptian symbol in the middle. I had chosen that symbol as our sign while we were on the case – scrawled in chalk on a wall in the Souk, or scribbled in the corner of a card in a phone booth, stuck to the wall and advertising interesting services with a number that was never answered. And made into a gold charm I wore on a chain, my suit collar open, for her to recognise when we finally met.
It almost hadn't happened. That had been one of the most dangerous operating areas so far. So many agents lost. Betrayed. Not only had the mission been aborted, but only we had escaped. Her partner, experienced and wary, returned from the second drop to "accidentally" fall from the hotel room balcony. A terrible mishap, they called it. An ambush, she realised, and turned away from the crowd of people huddled around his body on the dusty road to head to their secondary rendezvous. She'd set it up herself, telling no-one but her partner of its existence, and even then he did not know its location. So when he had been tortured before they carried him to the balcony and threw him over, he hadn't been able to tell them. She told me all this later, and I nodded, silently, sagely, hearing her voice tremble as she came to where she had realised there was a traitor in the group.
She was smart.
She'd left me a message at the dead drop. Spelled out her partner's fate, that she was safe, and to head to the brush-past. I watched her leave it there, saw her pull out the loose brick on the broken wall and tuck the paper slip behind it. Watched her walk away briskly, and made sure she really had left the area, waited another hour to ensure no-one else was keeping an eye on it, then pulled the message out. Walked past the café near the large blue mosque, wearing my suit jacket closed at the second button, the gold charm showing over the blue linen and the hat low over my face. If asked, I was protecting the scar that burned so quickly in the Middle-Eastern sun. I went to the corner, noting a distant column of black smoke in the distance, then doubled back, entered the door just as she left, passed her the ticket to safety as she pushed past me in the narrow space. No-one could have seen us. There was no-one left on our team, and the other side were busy at a minor distraction I'd set them on the far side of the abandoned factory, where a symbol was chalked in yellow on an empty oil drum. They'd found it, I knew. The black smoke told me everything.
We'd sat back to back at the airport departure lounge, a thin wall between us but not enough to stop our voices passing through. Anyone walking by would have thought us unconnected, total strangers, immersed in a newspaper or dozing while awaiting the flight. I could hear her voice, controlled and steady and only a hair's breadth from tears, as she filled me in on what had happened to her partner. When the call came, I got up to head to the gate first, and dropped my newspaper on the table in front of her as I went. It would have taken a very attentive listener to hear the slight tinkle as I did.
I disembarked at the layover, and did not return to the airplane. As I had no checked luggage, I knew I was written off as someone who had changed their plans to the mild inconvenience of the other passengers. She returned to Britain, told everything she knew to the Section Chief, suffered the recriminations and allegations that always fall on someone whose network was blown. And was told I had returned under my own steam and had corroborated every word she said.
But that was two years ago.
I followed her progress as she was trained, verified and tested. Her dual citizenship might have been a hindrance, but her loyalty was considered rock solid, despite the disasters she left behind. Nothing she had done could have caused the mayhem that broke out. She certainly believed in herself. My main regret was that operational rules meant we could not work together again for a while. I would have liked to. But then I would have broken another rule, unspoken yet fundamental.
You do not fall in love with another agent.
And if you do, you do nothing about it.
Because that makes both of you vulnerable, and vulnerable is unprotected and easily turned.
I had broken it. Fallen for her courage, her resilience and her intelligence. But for two years I used that love to build a prison wall around myself, separating us so that I might concentrate on my own tasks. I had done nothing about it except to nurture it in my heart, smiling only to myself when her name came up in conversations about upcoming evaluations, excellent results and possible assignments. I loved her, and enjoyed that love while it lasted, without knowing if there was any feeling in return.
I wrote her a note, asking her to find a little more time and meet me at the house. She was bound to return. After so many years, my tradecraft was instinctive. Each door had its own tell-tale, each room carefully checked for entry and exit points, observation lines and listening devices. The table was clear, the chairs set beside it. There I waited where I could see her come.
She parked around the back, her car concealed between the barn and the house. Good. She hadn't lost any of her skills, and had gained more by the look of things. She was dressed casually, her linen suit fastened at the second button, and the gold icon hanging over the bow of the blouse she wore. Although she walked without turning her head, I knew she was taking in everything around her – the isolation of the farm, the lack of traffic on the nearby lane, the fact that there was no sign of another car parked there.
She walked in the back door, straight through to the table where I sat facing the fireplace on the opposite side.
"Won't you sit down?" I gestured to the other chair, the one with the least obvious tears in the cheap vinyl padding. "Forgive me for not getting up. I need to save my energy – I'm not as young as I used to be." It wasn't exactly true. Luck had left me standing tall, but for this I needed to be sitting.
She didn't. She just stood there, looking at me. Finally, she reached up behind her neck and undid the chain, pooling it in her hand before dropping it on the table. Then she glanced over to its likeness sitting on the mantelpiece. Finally …
"I had to know it was safe." I picked up the icon, the weight as familiar as the day I passed it to her in the airport. "That I wasn't being followed. Or you. They will want closure, even after all this time."
"Will they ever stop?" At this she sat, her hands flat on the faded linoleum top.
"I hope so."
"You should have gone without me." She didn't need to say any more. She knew how I felt about her, clearly. But how did she feel about me?
It didn't matter. It never mattered. I pulled the gun out from where it was secured under the table, and shot her once through the forehead. Only just in time, too. Her own hand was reaching for the small revolver strapped to her thigh, but it swung instead under her as she fell back onto the rug. What little blood emerged was trapped by the man-made fibres, and I rolled her up in it and took her out to the barn, retrieving the car keys from her handbag as I went. In the old barn, lying under the thatched roof, a neat pile of hay with just a soupçon of diesel was waiting to accept her. I was proud that she had worked out it was me who betrayed her, but that could not divert me from this. She was no longer necessary.
Bringing her back with me, saving her from the other side, had been excellent cover for my return after all the hard work I did on destroying the network. It made me look chivalrous, an old-school agent playing mother hen to the last of the brood to survive. Those were my salad days, when I was green in judgement and cold of blood. Taking out the opposition as well had been a diversion and a safety mechanism. And the surveillance from our own people? They had been watching her, watching me, for two long years and seen nothing. Until finally they had stopped, allowing me to contact her and clean up the last loose end. Now I was just cold-blooded.
I straightened the chairs, wiping them and the table top so that her fingerprints and mine were no longer present. The vase on the mantelpiece went into my own bag, as did the gold chain and the icon. It took only moments to remove the tell-tales and leave the place as it had been – an abandoned farm on the Downs. My last step before I got in her car was to start the timer that would light up the old thatch and the bales of hay inside the barn at about three in the morning. By the time anyone noticed and called the fire brigade, the place would be well alight and if any sign of her remained, she would be considered a tinker or homeless soul who had lit a fire for warmth and lost their life in the blaze. Identification without her handbag would be close to impossible.
The light in the sky as I left was a clear, glorious gold.