Authors: Stella Rimington
Tags: #Mystery, #Espionage, #England, #Memoir
DG gave a small grunt. After a moment he said, ‘Our lot made a good show of it, I thought.’
‘Yes. Thames House must have been seriously undermanned for a few hours.’
‘I didn’t see anyone leaving the service, so let’s hope there were no crises.’ DG smiled, then grew serious. ‘I didn’t see Liz Carlyle.’
‘I did; she was at the church, with her mother. She didn’t go on to the house though. She must have had to get straight back.’
DG nodded and looked thoughtful. Beth sensed what he was thinking – it was no secret that Liz and Charles were close, though no doubt the two of them believed no one else had noticed. But how could you fail to observe their obvious mutual attraction? The way Charles’s face would light up when Liz joined a meeting he was chairing. The rapt look on Liz’s face when Charles was speaking. You would have been blind to miss it.
The couple’s feelings for each other would not have been a problem if Liz had worked for anyone else. But now she was reporting to Charles again, since he had taken over the counter espionage branch, and that’s where matters grew complicated.
It was not an unknown, or even uncommon situation. It was understood within the service that the secrecy of the job made it hard to forge relationships with anyone ‘outside’, and that therefore office romances were inevitable. Joanne Wetherby herself had worked for Charles, Beth remembered, though once Joanne and Charles had started seeing each other she’d been posted – to work for DG in fact, when he had still been a director.
What was expected, however, was that the participants in office romances declare themselves at once, and understand that one of the pair would have to be moved. The power of love might be accepted, but its inevitable impact on working relations couldn’t be.
As far as Beth knew, Liz and Charles had nothing to declare. If anyone had told her that the pair of them sloped off quietly at lunchtime to the City Inn Hotel on John Islip Street, or rendezvoused at the weekend in a West Country B&B, she would not have believed them. Charles was far too upright, too devoted to his wife to do anything like that. And Beth simply couldn’t see Liz in the role of mistress, waiting restlessly by the phone for a call from her married lover. Beth was sure that with these two, there had been no illicit affair. And that was the problem: everything was bubbling beneath the surface.
DG sighed again, this time more loudly, usually a sign that his thoughts were about to find vocal expression. They were in Putney now, about to cross the river. DG said, ‘I think we’ve got a bit of a problem on our hands.’
Beth nodded; there was no need for him to say what the problem was. She waited patiently and at last he added, ‘It could be very difficult for them both.’ He threw up a hand to indicate his own ambivalence. ‘I mean, there’s nothing stopping them now, is there?’
‘I suppose not,’ said Beth.
‘Though my father used to say “forbidden fruit looks less attractive once it’s off the tree.”’
Beth gave a small snort. ‘With all respect to your father, I don’t think the mutual attraction’s going to diminish. It’s other things that will get in the way.’
DG fingered his tie soberly. ‘Like what?’
‘Like guilt, unjustified though it might be. And I suppose the fear that what you’ve wanted so long could finally be yours.’
‘Yes. Not that it won’t turn out to be what you wanted, but that somehow you don’t deserve it. They say long-term prisoners are often terrified when their release date approaches. It’s just too much – the prospect of having what you’ve desired for so long is too daunting.’
‘You think it could be that bad for those two?’
Beth shrugged. She was paid to understand people, but had long learned that such understanding was precarious, and never to be assumed. She said, ‘I’d like to think not.’
‘But you’re not sure,’ said DG, and it wasn’t posed as a question. ‘In which case their work will almost certainly be affected. So I think they might profit from a break.’
Beth must have looked horrified, as if he had suggested ordering the two to go off together for a week’s leave in Paris, for he added hastily, ‘I mean a break from each other.’
‘Oh,’ said Beth with relief.
‘Yes,’ said DG.
What now? she thought warily. Personnel and postings were her responsibility, and he rarely interfered directly. But now she could see he had made his mind up. She didn’t want an argument, so she hoped she’d be able to go along with whatever he’d decided.
He said emphatically, ‘I think Liz should be posted – at least temporarily, while Charles settles back in at work. There’s a lot for him to do, you know,’ he said, almost accusingly, as if he thought she might think he was being unnecessarily harsh.
‘Where do you want to put her?’ she asked. Counter terrorism, she imagined. That’s where Liz had been before. Working for Charles when he had been director there.
‘We’ll have to work that out,’ he said, rather to her surprise. If he’d already decided, as she suspected he had, he clearly wasn’t ready to say. ‘It’s got to be something challenging. I don’t want her to think it’s in any way a demotion. That wouldn’t be fair on Liz.’
‘No, though—’ and Beth hesitated. When DG looked at her questioningly, she sighed. ‘She’s going to see it that way, I fear.’
‘Probably.’ DG shrugged lightly. ‘But that can’t be helped. And so long as we make sure her new posting is tough enough, she’ll soon get stuck in. She’s too good an officer not to.’
The call came out of the blue and Dave didn’t recognise the name.
‘Phil Robinson,’ the man on the end of the phone repeated, with an English-sounding voice. ‘I’m a warden with the National Trust. I was in contact with the RUC Special Branch in the past. I was told to ring you.’
Dave Armstrong had been in Northern Ireland for a couple of months. He was part of the team that was gradually filling up the smart new MI5 offices in Palace Barracks, the army HQ a few miles north of Belfast city centre. With power-sharing in Northern Ireland taking its first staggering steps, the new Police Service of Northern Ireland that had replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary had handed over intelligence work in the province to MI5.
With that transfer of power went all the records of the large stable of agents – the human sources that had fed the RUC with information from inside the Republican and the Loyalist armed groups during the Troubles. It was information far too sensitive to retain in a police service that might find itself answering to government ministers or members of a police board who were once themselves part of the armed groups. The last thing the new police service wanted was a spate of revenge killings or score settling.
So Dave and a couple of colleagues in the agent-running section of the MI5 team had the job of sorting through the list of sources they’d inherited, closing down the many who were of no future use and getting to know the few who might continue to be of value. For although the so-called ‘peace process’ was well established and the security threat in Northern Ireland had changed, it hadn’t gone away. The Provisional IRA might have disbanded its armed groups and decommissioned its weapons but there were still those among its former ranks – and Loyalists on the other side of the divide – who did not support the peace process. For them the war was not over, which meant Dave and his colleagues were monitoring several renegade groups determined to do all they could to keep the war very much alive.
Phil Robinson. The name now rang a bell. It had stuck out of the list of old sources because of the National Trust link. It had seemed an unlikely connection, but Dave knew that National Trust properties had been the target of IRA attacks in the past. In 1973 two young IRA volunteers had blown themselves up in the Castle Ward estate with a bomb they were trying to plant. After that, the security forces had paid more attention to the Trust’s properties in Northern Ireland, and Robinson had been one of the people who’d been recruited to advise them.
‘How can I help?’ asked Dave now.
‘Something’s come up. I wonder if we could meet.’
‘Of course,’ said Dave, thankful to have something active to do. He was finding the routine job of reviewing old files and standing down old cases tedious. Maybe this would turn out to be nothing, but Robinson sounded sensible. So Dave said, ‘How about this afternoon?’
They had arranged to meet in the middle of the city. Dave took one of the operational cars from the garage and drove, working his way through the traffic into the heart of Belfast, busy even in mid-afternoon. When he’d first arrived, it had been a pleasant surprise to find the middle of the city lively, vibrant, humming with activity. The images Dave had grown up with – soldiers with automatic weapons, barricades and barbed wire, the apprehensive looks on people’s faces – had been replaced by teeming shops, pedestrian areas (from which cars were now banned for reasons that had nothing to do with security), and a buoyant nightlife. It was hard to believe that not so long ago the city had been to all intents and purposes a war zone. And although Dave’s job gave him a healthy scepticism about the new-found peace, the citizens of Belfast seemed too intent on enjoying ‘normal life’ to let things be derailed by a few murderous malcontents.
He was living in one of the flats the service leased in the suburb of Holywood, just outside Palace Barracks. It was an area of the town that had been comfortably safe in the Troubles but now, for someone living on their own like Dave, it was rather dull and lonely. He had a girlfriend in London, Lucy. They’d been together for two years, which for him was a long time. But it was difficult keeping it going when they were so far apart. He was too busy to hop over to England every weekend and there wasn’t much point in Lucy coming to see him if he had to work. But he was serious about her and that meant he wasn’t looking to meet girls in the bars of Belfast’s lively nightlife – he didn’t join his younger colleagues when they went out partying.
But he’d just heard some news that had lifted his spirits. Michael Binding, the head of the MI5 office in Northern Ireland, had told them all that morning that Liz Carlyle was coming out to head the agent-running section. Dave knew that Binding didn’t have much time for Liz, or she for him. But Dave had both affection and respect for her, though he wondered, now that she was going to be his boss, if their relationship would change. Not that they had been very close for the last couple of years. Liz had been transferred from counter terrorism, and it was only a fluke that they had recently worked together – in Scotland, at Gleneagles, on a plot to ruin a vital peace conference. It had been good working with her again; she was formidable without being aware of it, straightforward, clear, decisive.
That wasn’t all, of course. For a time, five or six years ago, they had been not only good work colleagues but close friends as well. They might even have been more than that, but some mutual hesitation had held them back. More ‘mutual’ for her than me, Dave thought sadly, because he’d realised ever since that a part of him regretted that they hadn’t got together. Well, that was out of the question, now. For one thing he was with Lucy and for another, you didn’t get a second chance with someone like Liz. Anyway, he knew that her heartstrings were tied somewhere else – to Charles Wetherby. When Joanne had died two months ago, Dave’s first thought had been that Liz and Charles would be together. So why on earth was Liz coming to Belfast?
Whatever the reason, he was delighted. And only partly because he was looking forward to seeing her dealing with Michael Binding.
Phil Robinson was a tall man with greying hair. He spoke without a hint of Ulster brogue in his voice, and with his tweed jacket and checked Viyella shirt looked completely English, a bit like a retired civil servant who’d spent the morning helping his wife tend the roses. He seemed out of place in Northern Ireland, thought Dave, and as if in answer to the thought, Robinson told him that he had come over to Northern Ireland from England for the National Trust on a temporary posting thirty years before – and stayed.
‘I fell in love with the place despite myself,’ he said with a small grin. ‘Then I met my wife, and fell in love with her as well. Only please don’t tell her it was in that order.’
They were sitting in a coffee shop in St George’s Gardens, around the corner from the Europa Hotel, which after years of being the most bombed hotel in Europe now seemed to be flourishing. When Dave had walked past it, a long line of Japanese businessmen had been queuing outside for cabs, while foreign guests of every conceivable race and nationality – Indians, Arabs, Orientals – went in and out of the big revolving doors. Only the doorman, standing erect behind a rostrum just outside the entrance, had looked pale enough to be Irish.
Robinson explained that he now worked only part-time for the National Trust.
‘Consulting?’ asked Dave politely, since that was how everyone seemed to describe any work they did after retiring.
Phil Robinson gave a self-deprecating laugh. ‘Hardly. I help with the migrant bird counts up in Antrim, and stand in when too many wardens go on holiday at the same time. But my grandest job is south of here in County Down. Near Newcastle.’
‘Doing what?’ asked Dave politely.
‘My wife and I look after the holiday cottages on the Drigillon Estate – I was joking about the grand bit. They’re let for a week or two at a time, or sometimes for short breaks of two or three nights. There are three of them on the estate – so it’s a fair amount of work, particularly in the summer when they are occupied all the time.’
‘So why did you want to see me?’
‘I’ll tell you what it is. One of the cottages – it’s not really a cottage; it’s a house, the old gatehouse to the estate – has a gate in front of it which is usually closed. It works electronically. If you have a remote control device it opens automatically and then closes behind you. Some local members of the National Trust who like to walk on the estate have remotes to open the gate and anyone staying in the cottages is given one. In the last six months or so, several people who’ve been staying at the gatehouse have complained that people were opening the gate at odd hours in the night – it makes rather a crash as it closes – and driving cars up past the house into the estate. Of course, our renters often complain about something or other – one even moaned about the quality of the soap – so I didn’t take much notice at first. But when several tenants said the same thing – cars, coming by at three in the morning – I felt I had to take some notice.’