The SIS building’s sixth floor conference room looked as though it was taken from a cheap action film: A deep mahogany colored round table, illuminated by a handful of gold colored table lamps, each one fitted with a green plastic lampshade. The chairs were of black leather, with high rectangular backrests. The wide north-west window shades were shut; nonetheless, some yellow sunlight managed to penetrate the otherwise pale neon lit room.
The building was referred to as VX, after its Vauxhall location, as well as Babylon-upon-Thames. Grey preferred the latter, as its architectural style looked like something inspired by an ancient excavation site.
It was a mess. Facing the muddy River Thames from the south, it was distinctively built from creamy color bricks. There was nothing like it anywhere in London. It was essentially comprised from three consecutive structures each higher than the other, with twin turrets erected in the top middle, uniting them. Between the turrets, dead at the center, was a rounded terrace that looked like a Roman shrine. The floors differed from one another in size and shape, but kept perfect symmetry on both east and west wings. Each structure was topped with glossy turquoise windows.
People affectionately nicknamed it Legoland, as it looked like something assembled in a rush. Symmetrical rush, but a rush nonetheless, Grey thought to himself as he lifted one of the shades and looked down at the building. As the window shade pulled up electronically, the room was washed with a yellow light from the west descending sun. Opposite Grey, with his back to the door, sat Neil Finch. He was forty five years old, with dark hair greying in a few silvery streaks, and was balding at the very top. He had a piercing gaze as he listened to the other attendants, but his tough rugged look was otherwise diminished by his slouching shoulders. He was wearing a white shirt with a black and grey striped tie that reflected neither authority nor much creativity.
Next to Finch sat Matt Wey, the internal controller of MI6, referred to by a derogatory term “SIS Grass” behind his back. He was a young man, in respect to the heavy responsibilities laid on his shoulders, only thirty seven years in age. He had a blond crew-cut, he was tall and slender, with a pale white skin that would lean towards pink after just a day in the sun. He spoke in a deep Essex accent with a self-sense of importance, that could not be perceived as authoritative by anyone else but himself. He was considered very smart, a meteor lawyer who had risen in the ranks of the Foreign Office’s legal department, “parachuted” into this post at MI6 by the permanent undersecretary himself. The fact that he was welcomed in some corridors of Whitehall and never actually saw any field work, made Wey unpopular amongst the SIS servicemen, to say the least. He was branded by many who had never even bothered to get to know him, as an opportunist suck up, and he was quite used to roaming the VX building on his own like a leper.
“You see…” Finch started, with his heavy Sheffield accent. “The guys that visited your informant this AM are from E Squadron”.
He nodded. The E Squadron was the name given to a special-ops unit performing covert operations. They were sometimes referred to as ‘the Increment’ and were a relatively a newly formed unit subordinated to SIS directly. It was formed so that MI6 wouldn’t need to use Special Forces units such as SAS or SBS that were legally under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. Only a handful of people in the service had the authority to sign off on an E Squadron directive. Moreover, the three men were quite aware of the fact that it would take the very top to authorize an activity on English soil.
“We have no way of knowing what they were doing and why. And when C’s secretary brushed me off under false pretenses, I decided to put Mr. Wey here in the loop.” He exhaled heavily as soon as he said it.
Dark clouds were forming in Grey’s mind. C was the long lasting nickname of the head of MI6. The alias was named after Mansfield Cummings, who was the founder and first to head what was then called “the Secret Service Bureau”. He used to sign every official paper with the letter, and thus every head of what later evolved to be MI6 kept the initial. If the head was involved, things may run deeper than what he suspected, and it might be that Ephraim was on to something. Your service is rotten.
“If the boss is sweeping this under the rug,” he continued, “then Mr. Wey here’s the only one that can look into it, innit?” he rhetorically asked.
“Exactly” Wey answered anyway. is accent stood up in contrast to Finch’s rugged deep tones. His nasal pronunciation made him sound condescending. “Since I am the internal controller, I will be using my budget to appoint you to investigate. I trust you will accept the nomination?”
Was he always so formal? Grey nodded.
“It will be an Ad-Hoc appointment. Once we are happy that we got to the bottom of this, HR will actually handle the paperwork. Until then, you are essentially--“
“A rogue” Grey completed the sentence.
“Well,” Wey squirmed. “I mean… I don’t want whoever is behind this to get the head’s up that you are sniffing the grass. If E Squadron were employed, it means that whoever it is has a high enough clearance to be exposed to anything around here, possibly even some of my files. But he can’t see something that isn’t filed, now can he? Since most of your work - I’d assume - will be naturally in the field, there’s no need to find you a nice cubicle here in VX.”
“I will however give you access to my clearance level and files-“
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Finch interrupted.
Wey’s eyebrows shot up.
“With all due respect sir, if it’s a high up insider, maybe C himself, then he may find a way to access your private logs as well. I’m sure agent Grey is resourceful and wise enough to see things my way.”
Agent Grey. It had been a while. Was he back on the inside? It certainly didn’t feel like it. “In other words,” Grey said, extrapolating, “Mr. Finch here wants me to parachute behind enemy lines without as much as even a radio. That way, if I am apprehended, he can deny any connection to myself. Just a mad old goat.” A cynical smile embellished his face.
“Spot on.” Finch looked at him, exposing a smile full of crooked yellow teeth.
Grey was fond of the old mid-level officer. He remembered him when he still had a head full of dark hair. Most instructors in the Ranch, where Grey served in the last years of his career, branded Finch a technocrat, a minor details grey sort of guy. He disagreed, and was glad to see that he had called it right.
“What’s next?” Grey asked.
“Two things we know,” Wey declared and stood up extrovertedly. “First, someone who has the authority to activate E Squadron is involved. There is only a handful of people that can match this description. Second is that a query I ran found no recent tracks of Henry Haft, save the conversation Finch had with you. This tells us that whoever it is went to great lengths to cover his tracks.”
“Well blimey, that’s not much,” Finch blurted. “It’s not like whoever would be doing something illegal would bov’er documenting it. Right?”
Grey went to the window, and sunk into the black leathered chair. “It does tell us one thing.” He leaned forward on the table crossing his arms. “Whoever sent the E Squadron goons is indeed working relentlessly so that no one in the service learns about it. We have to let them think that they’re safe, therefore the two of you are more than welcome to kick me out of here”.
Finch nodded. It would take some acting on Wey’s part, and he wondered if he had it in him.
“We meet again on Monday at 9am. Here. If I don’t make this meeting, I suggest you update the head, the head of MI5 as well and the undersecretary, at least one of them should be legit.” He swallowed hard.
“Are we done? Am I to discredit you now?” Wey asked.
“Yessir.” Grey stood up. “Let’s step outside to the corridor so you can most eloquently throw me down the stairs so that anyone who’s currently in operations can see and tell.”
At that exact moment Grey’s mobile rang.
Their conversation was curt. Grey didn’t appreciate the fact that John had no understanding of phone tapping and Sigint surveillance. Didn’t the guy watch any spy movie for crying out loud? John had tried to describe his revelation to Grey but the latter stopped him short and shifted the conversation to some witness declaration he neglected to have him sign. The two scheduled to meet in an hour or so outside Sloane Square’s underground station.
* * *
Liz Shaw was standing in the corner, facing the greengrocer stand as John entered Liverpool Street’s underground station. Her instructions were crystal clear. She went over them in her mind: track him down, follow him, and report any contact he may be meeting. The number she had to report back to was unknown to her. She was to use a different Blackberry device from her own - it had been delivered by the mailroom earlier on the day. No sender ID. Most unusual.
As he walked into the station, she had been holding open a round pocket mirror, pretending to be refreshing her red lipstick. She had large plump lips that had been often sought after by her male classmates as early as she was in grammar school. She had received the nickname ‘the Black Widow’ not just because of her charcoal black hair: she normally accepted the boys’ date requests, yet dumped them the very next week. The ivory tone pf her face stood in perfect contrast with her hair. She had catlike green eyes and a pointy nose that held firm her big-frame red glasses. She wore black leather trousers, black boots, and a baggy cream sweater that nearly reached her knees, topped with a cream colored trench. She had a slender and athletic physique underneath, but was accustomed to baggy clothes while on surveillance, as there wasn’t much point in drawing unwanted male attention when trying to be a shadow. That was one of her old instructor’s mantra, and it stuck. Generally she loved attention from men; she felt empowered whenever a bloke, who was walking with his ‘missus’, turned his head to her. Silly simple creatures she thought of them, maybe that’s the reason she never settled down with a permanent partner.
Liz observed John as he passed the greengrocer, John picked up his pace and traversed the station. It was buzzing and it seemed as though every one of the twenty-odd electronic gates was being used. A big African accented usher was standing in the corner trying to explain something to a group of Spanish tourists. They did not understand him and were drawing near him in half a circle; it looked like he was about to be devoured.
As he went past the automatic gate, she snapped the mirror shut and made her way after him. The doors of the big white plastic worm had already beeped when she jumped on board, keeping him in close proximity as the train left the station.
As the train was gaining speed, Liz tried to figure out what Ops could possibly want from the clueless cute lad. “Ops” or “Covert Ops” was the service’s directorate of special operations. It covered activities such as tailing subjects, sting operations and practically any ground or preparation work that a handler needed in order to carry out his job. They were divided into teams that rotated, but when they were home in Britain, they were generally given solo missions or exercise drills in order to keep them sharp. She had joined the service right after uni and was assigned to Ops based on her sex appeal and physical abilities (she had been a gymnast in secondary school among other hobbies). She was trained in the arts of surveillance and was taught how to read people. Training was tedious; it went on for two years and included excruciating hours and hours of mock surveillance exercises, interrogations and interviews, and mastering the use of firearms and explosives. Just what every good girl needs to know. Her overall performance at “The Ranch“, the nickname for SIS School of Intelligence, was superb. She was a natural. After she graduated, she was permanently stationed in the Ops UK team, an honor normally saved for the best. To date she had had two lengthy major missions aboard. Every operation she had ever been involved with, went without a glitch and she had received numerous commendations from her superiors.
Throughout the years the occasional surveillance mission became such a routine that she could do it with her eyes closed. She learned to lay low, limit the questions to a minimum and collect the paycheck at the end of the month. That attitude made her a sought after commodity within Ops, and she was quite aware of it. The job was gratifying, and the numerous missions kept her interest, in spite of the fact that surveillance activity was a bore ninety percent of the time. While she was perfectly content professionally, the long and irregular hours, the abrupt abroad assignments and the fact that she couldn’t discuss her work with anyone, made dating almost impossible. Besides, the “Black Widow” had long found Englishmen in their thirties, tedious and full of themselves: a stereotype that formed based on the professional crowd that she was mixed with. As she turned thirty, her parents, who had been retired for a few years now in their Kent home, stopped pressuring her into marriage, and focused on her boring younger sister, who was already a mother to twin boys. They simply had given up.
With her head clouded with thoughts, she left the train at Sloane Square Station tailing the young target, almost automatically. The station was dark and uninviting, and as she climbed up the stairs she caught a glimpse of him meeting up with a man near the newspapers and snacks kiosk that was situated to the right hand side of the cobblestone square, outside the station. The other man was meticulously dressed, his hair was greyish and he was tall. She couldn’t shake the thought that something in the guy looked awfully familiar.
As she came near, she drew out her Blackberry and took a quick snapshot of the duo. Ops had devices which were enhanced with real camera features, so the picture was sharp and the features were distinctive even with a photo taken in a brisk movement. She kept walking past them, and stopped as she crossed the street, just in time to see the pair take a left turn to Lower Sloane Street. She input the picture to a MMS and sent it to the unfamiliar number that had sent her instructions.
She had started striding on their tail as a message was received. It read: “Adam Grey. Former SIS. Keep monitoring”.
It hit her - Adam Grey. The last time she had seen the charming old spymaster he was lecturing at her class. That was back at the Ranch, he was about eight years younger and his hair wasn’t nearly as grey. Could time had flown by so quickly? He had quite the reputation of being the best in their field. She would have to take extra care.
* * *
The deceptive sun had risen her head above the clouds, yet hadn’t generated any sort of heat to somewhat dissolve the cold air. The duo sat down at an outside table in a local Italian deli called La Bottega. The place was cozy. The outdoor tables and chairs were wooden with a metallic rim. The tables were round save the rectangular one that was pressed by the big glass window. They took the bench near this one, the above outdoor heater providing them some comfort. The place was otherwise quite empty except for a few people sitting inside. There was a big glass counter that hovered above the orange square floor tiles, which was packed with pastas and salads.
Liz had quickly gotten inside and occupied the corner table; she could see their backs pressed against the bench from the big shop window. Not the prefect vista point but this will have to do. She ordered a glass of white wine and stayed put.
John ordered a cappuccino and Grey a double espresso with San Pellegrino. “Nothing else, thanks” Grey told the mousy haired waitress impatiently.
“We’ll discuss your phone security awareness on a different occasion.” He was snappy, continuing a conversation they had started on the way. “Now, what have you got for me?”
John produced the brown Jiffy from the inner pocket of his coat. He laid it on the table just as the drinks arrived. Grey’s gaze moved in between the envelope, John and the waitress. Liz made a note of that.
As the waitress left them and cleared inside, Grey eased up a bit. “What is it?”
“Something in his final words made me realize where this was. I spotted it next to a portrait of The Queen.”
“What’s in it?” He found it hard to hide his ecstasy, facing the relaunching of Ephraim’s murder investigation. Murder. He was now certain of it.
“I don’t know,” he answered “I didn’t open it.”
With a swift motion Grey put his hand on the Jiffy and tore it open. He took out its content: two passports, some official documents written in a foreign language and a letter. He had enough experience to identify the documents as Polish. The passports were Polish as well, bearing the names ‘Peter Piotrowski’ and ‘Lukas Kozik’. He immediately noticed that the pictures in each passport were identical: a sixty year old man, with an aquiline nose and a thick grey moustache. He was unshaven and had thin shoulder length grey hair. He was wearing old style framed glasses.
The documents contained the same names, but had no pictures. They were official Polish interior ministry declarations. He picked up the letter, which was scribbled with an untidy handwriting. It bore yesterday’s date.
Dear Mr Murry,
I am writing you this letter since I fear that my life is under genuine threat. You will soon realize that there is real foundation for my concerns. My son, Petr Haft, has been working for five years now in the Polish Foreign Office in Warsaw. His main job is to authorize citizenship requests and visa applications that are sent back to Warsaw for deeper scrutiny.
Petr had an acquaintance in the London consulate, together they authorized a few requests unlawfully, in aim of making extra cash. I have given him quite a go when I heard, but this is of no importance now. His friend would pass the requests officially, they had a local lawyer that translated documents and sent them necessary legal letters for a fee, and his friend would then issue the passports in London. Very untraceable.
It is a criminal behavior that I condemn, but times in Warsaw are tough and in general their actions have never hurt anyone.
After handling the papers of the gentlemen enclosed in this envelope, Petr came to visit me in London. He had found his acquaintance in London -Jerzy- dead in his London flat. You may have heard about it, the police branded it as suicide, but the guy’s details were never released to the press, as it was a matter involving a foreign national diplomat. I can assure you that the guy loved partying and was quite the ladies’ man, and that suicide, according to Petr, is out of the question.
The guy’s flat was torn apart, according to the police by squatters, but in Petr’s opinion they were trying to retrieve these documents that I have enclosed. They were mistaken to think that Jerzy was in possession of them.
Despite my old age and crumbling memory I am pretty certain that if you run these documents in your computers you will find the pictures to strike an amazing resemblance to Professor Vassili Nikolayev. We had run into him around 1986 if I am not mistaken.
If nothing else, your integrity was never in doubt with me Murry. Two days ago Petr went into hiding, in a location that even I do not know. I implore you to find whoever is behind this and help Petr. I can only assume that if Professor Nikolayev resurged, the worst is yet to come. What happens to me is immaterial as long as you do what is right.
A gentleman to the very end, Grey thought. He could sense John’s curiosity burning inside of him. “Well you had it within your grasp and you were honest enough to keep it unopened – you might as well” he said as he gave the letter to John. As the young man took his time with it, he couldn’t help but feeling melancholic. Nikolayev was a Soviet nuclear scientist, a colonel in the KGB, the head of their secret Nuclear Proliferation Program. As the Soviet Bloc fell, he assumed his roles at SVR, the Russian intelligence service. For a decade, aided by quality espionage technics, he managed to advance Russia’s nuclear program by light years. He was identified dead by the Americans in 2001, though the circumstances of his presumed hit were not shared with the service.
He had also remembered Jerzy’s case vaguely. A young Polish diplomat who ended his life with a single gunshot in his Camden flat after a failed romance. He never gave any thought to this case before.
His tasks were quite clear to him now. Someone in the service is aiding the formerly deceased Professor Nikolayev, making efforts to help his resurrection stay clandestine. He needed to find out why and then track down Ephraim’s son. He owed him that much. He studied his reflection in the shop’s glass window: he suddenly seemed to look ten years older.