Read Liz Carlyle - 05 - Present Danger Online
Authors: Stella Rimington
Tags: #Mystery, #Espionage, #England, #Memoir
Dave nodded, but inwardly wondered why this necessitated a call to MI5. Surely the local police should have been the first port of call.
Robinson seemed to sense his scepticism. ‘I know, it may be nothing at all,’ he said modestly.
‘But something tells you it’s not?’ Dave asked gently. There was no point writing off the man’s story yet.
Robinson nodded, and said, ‘Yes. My wife and I stayed in the gatehouse for a couple of nights, between lets. Val thought I was mad, but it seemed the best way to find out if anything was going on. And sure enough, one night the gate was opening and shutting and there were cars driving by at four o’clock in the morning. Then after breakfast, two of them came back down the track. I was out walking our terrier.’
Dave nodded. ‘Are there any other houses on the estate where they might be going?’
‘Just the old farmhouse. But that’s not owned by the Trust. Whoever does own it had a lot of work done to it a year or so ago. There were builders’ lorries going up and down the track then. But not in the middle of the night. I wondered at first whether this was young people having a rave or taking drugs, but I’ve seen no sign of damage on the estate or rubbish – empty bottles or syringes or that sort of stuff.’
Robinson continued, ‘That’s not all. You see, when the two cars came down the track after breakfast, I was just by the gate. They slowed down to wait for the gate to open, and I recognised one of the men in the cars. At least I think I did – I didn’t get a very good a look at him. But I’m pretty sure it was Terry Malone, an old IRA hand. I doubt you’ve heard of him, but he used to be well known over here. He was fairly high up in the Provisionals, and he had a brother, Seamus Malone, who went with the other side when the IRA split in the seventies – he was Official IRA. When Seamus was murdered in Dublin, the crack was that his own brother – that’s Terry – fingered him for the killers. Who knows? But I’m almost certain it was Terry Malone I saw in the car.’
While Robinson finished his coffee, Dave thought about this, then asked, ‘What are you suggesting? Do you think there might be some renegade IRA outfit in this farmhouse?’
Robinson shrugged. ‘All this coming and going could mean anything. An awful lot of former Provisionals are finding life pretty difficult – all the organisation’s money goes on Sinn Fein election pamphlets these days, instead of Armalites. These guys are up to all sorts of stuff to try to raise money to keep the war going.’
‘Is the gatehouse occupied at the moment?’
‘Yes it is, until the middle of next week. But then we have a week when it’s empty. We always keep a week in January for spring cleaning, but that will only take us a couple of days. I could let you have a key for the end of the week if you wanted to see for yourself.’
‘Thanks,’ said Dave. ‘I think that could be very useful.’
When the tyre blew, Liz’s car suddenly veered right at a forty-five-degree angle. She knew that at fifty miles an hour things could go either way – the car might go out of control and there would be nothing she could do but hope, or there was just a chance that she could manage the situation if she acted forcefully and immediately.
Instinctively Liz hooked both hands through the steering wheel and braced her forearms, struggling to hold the steering wheel as it fought her with enormous torque. The car slewed across the slow lane, cutting in front of a black van, which braked with a squeal, then honked furiously.
She used all her strength now, and the skidding car just missed the concrete barrier on the road’s hard shoulder; then, as if it had a mind of its own, the vehicle moved right, back out into the road. Narrowly avoiding a sports car that swerved and accelerated past, it headed this time towards the central barrier, but just before hitting it at speed, the steering wheel slackened slightly. Liz managed to turn the car away sharply, then rode the resulting skid once, twice, then three times, weaving through the lanes as other cars swerved desperately to avoid her. At last the vehicle slowed down, like a runaway horse recognising it’s been caught, and Liz brought it to a sudden stop back on the hard shoulder.
She sat for a moment, trembling violently, waiting for the drum roll in her heart to slow. Then she got out, and inspecting the damage she saw that one of the rear tyres had virtually disintegrated, its vulcanised rubber now hanging in shreds from a black lump around the metal wheel. She was quite capable of changing a tyre – her father had taught her as a teenage girl before he let her drive alone – but the warped mass around the wheel was going to require more than the jack stowed in the boot.
As her fear subsided, it was replaced with anger. The car had been left for her to pick up at the airport by her new colleagues in the Palace Barracks office. What the hell were they doing, leaving her a car with dodgy tyres? She grabbed her mobile phone and dialled Michael Binding’s secretary. As she punched in the numbers she looked down the road and saw a sign facing the traffic. Its cheerful message read,
Welcome to Belfast
Seven days before, Liz had sat in Director B’s office in Thames House. The low winter sun had glanced through the windows; she could see, half a mile down the river, the postmodernist headquarters of MI6 bathed in golden light.
Beth Davis had been friendly, praising her recent work, but then she had dropped her bombshell – Liz was being posted to the MI5 headquarters in Northern Ireland. ‘We need you there to take charge of the agent-running section. You’ll have much more responsibility, Liz. All the agent runners will be reporting to you. They have a big job to do – there’s a lot still going on over there – and we need someone with your background to decide where the priorities lie. They’re all enthusiastic, but some of them haven’t been with the service very long; they do need guidance.’
She continued for a few minutes, couching her words carefully, but Liz found it hard to understand why she had been chosen. She knew that of all the service’s new regional offices, Belfast was the most important, because it was going to act as a backup HQ in the event of a terrorist attack on Thames House in London. But even though she’d done short stints on the Northern Ireland desk when she’d first joined the service, she’d never actually been posted there, so she couldn’t see why she had been chosen for this job.
‘When do I start?’ she asked, thinking of the arrangements she’d have to make. If she were going to be there any time, perhaps she should think about letting her flat.
‘Michael Binding’s expecting you next week.’
Oh God, thought Liz, trying not to react. She and Binding had crossed swords on more than one occasion; she imagined he would relish being in a position to tell her what to do.
Beth said, ‘Call in on the postings team this afternoon, Liz; they’ll sort out the details.’
Nice of Beth to take the time to build me up, Liz thought sourly as she left. Then she told herself to get a grip. There must be a reason for this posting, though for the life of her she couldn’t see what it could be. And why so fast? This was the real sting in the tail, she knew – not because she had any major unfinished business at work, but because … Oh go on and admit it, she told herself. Because Charles was due back at work any day now, and she was longing to see him. And now it would be just her luck to leave Thames House only days before he returned. It was almost as if Beth Davis were keen to get her out of the way before Charles was back.
Don’t be so silly, Liz told herself. They couldn’t have any idea of her feelings. She’d never told anyone about them, and had made a point of always acting completely professionally with Charles. No, she was sure she had kept her secret well. Something else was going on to account for this posting.
While she was ruminating about this, a car drew up beside her on the hard shoulder and she recognised Maureen Hayes from A4 at the wheel, with a younger man sitting next to her.
‘Hello, Liz. I got your message from Michael’s secretary. That looks pretty nasty. Are you OK?’
‘Well, I am now,’ said Liz. ‘It’s good to see you. Have you got many cars over here with ropey tyres?’
‘I’m amazed,’ Maureen replied. ‘This one was serviced last week and I drove it myself to the airport to leave for you. It seemed fine then. Get in and I’ll take you to the office. Let’s bring your luggage, and Tom here will wait for the pickup truck. It’s on its way.’
‘I thought you’d like to see your office first,’ said Michael Binding’s PA, a thin young woman with spiky ash-streaked hair. She led Liz down a corridor until she stopped at an open door. It was a good-sized room, but with its bare desk, tall steel cupboard, and two upright chairs it looked utterly cheerless.
‘You’re due a meeting table and chairs and a couple of armchairs. We’ve got some art as well,’ she said. ‘I’ll have a few pictures brought round, if you like. You can pick a couple to make the place look a bit more homely.’
Liz nodded, and looked out of the window at the view of the half-empty barracks. In the distance she could see the A2, where the traffic was speeding along towards Belfast ten miles away.
‘Michael wanted to be here when you arrived, but he’s been called over to Stormont unexpectedly. I’ll let you know as soon as he’s back.’
‘Dave Armstrong around?’ Liz asked, suddenly keen for a familiar face.
The girl shook her head. ‘I know he wants to say hello, but he’s out meeting someone. He said to tell you he’d see you tomorrow. Some of the agent runners are in – their office is just along the corridor.’
An hour or so later Liz was feeling better. There were several familiar faces in the agent runners’ room and the welcome had been warm, as had the coffee. Then the PA stuck her head round the door.
Liz followed her along the corridor, past the centre lift shaft, until they came to a large office in the corner. The view here, Liz noted, was of farm fields stretching into the distance in rolling curves.
‘Ah, Liz,’ said the tall, wide-shouldered man as he got up from his desk, and shook her hand without a smile, ‘I was sorry to hear about your car accident. Driving here is usually so safe.’
He looks different, thought Liz. Michael Binding had always favoured the country squire look – tweed sports jacket, checked shirt and highly polished brown brogues. But now he was wearing a long-sleeved khaki pullover, with leather patches on the sleeves, narrow corduroy trousers in a curious shade of faded pinkishred, and brown suede shoes. His hair, previously short and neat, was now curling up off his collar. Liz realised that he had changed from squire to military officer. She sat down and waited to see what the new image portended.
She knew Binding as a clever but impatient man, whose impatience was at its worst when he had to work with female colleagues. More than impatience, in fact, since he patronised them in a manner so anachronistic and breathtakingly rude that he somehow got away with it. He had become famous for it throughout Thames House and, far from taking offence, most of the women he worked with put up with it and treated it as a joke, swapping stories of occasions when he had called them ‘dear’ or sighed loudly and raised his eyebrows when they disagreed with him. It was a matter of speculation among the women in Thames House what made him do it. Most thought that it was probably because his wife bossed him about at home.
Liz had never had to work for him before, but a few years previously she had had to interview Binding during an investigation – the same one that had unearthed a mole at a high level of MI5. Binding had been difficult, obstreperous, objecting to her questioning until Liz had warned him that she’d bring in DG if Binding did not cooperate, which reluctantly and sulkily he then had.
After that, she had kept as far away from him as she could, and when their paths had occasionally crossed he had treated her with cautious resentment. So she watched warily now to see how he would react to her joining his staff.
‘I must say,’ he opened, ‘I was hoping to be sent someone with Northern Ireland experience. I understand you have very little.’
Liz gazed at him levelly while she decided how to respond. ‘Not much,’ she said eventually in a bright, cheerful voice. ‘But as I’m sure you know, I have a lot of agent-running experience and I assume that’s why I was chosen for this particular job.’
Binding said nothing for a moment. First blood to me, thought Liz to herself. Then, changing tack, he said, ‘It’s busier here than you may think.’ He spoke defensively, as if he sensed scepticism. ‘I know there isn’t much coverage on the mainland of things over here, but the Troubles have far from gone away. Sometimes I think the media doesn’t
to report any problems in the hopes they’ll just disappear.’
‘What exactly are the problems?’
‘Well, with no Northern Irish background you may find yourself at a disadvantage in understanding the current situation.’
Liz forced herself not to respond and kept her face expressionless as he went on.
‘The usual, just on a much reduced scale. Our estimate is that there are over one hundred paramilitaries still active on the Republican side. They are not particularly well-organised, thank God – they belong to almost as many splinter groups as there are members.’
‘Still, a hundred individuals could do a lot of damage,’ said Liz.
‘Precisely,’ he said in the pedantic tone Liz remembered, designed to make her feel like a pupil who was being marked on a test. ‘Equally worrying, they can trigger a reaction on the other side. For now, the Loyalist groups have laid down their arms, but a few sectarian murders could change that overnight.’
‘Where are these fringe people getting the resources to carry on? Is there still any foreign support?’
‘Not that we know of. Al Qaeda aren’t moving in, if that’s what you’re thinking,’ he added with heavy sarcasm,
‘I wasn’t, actually,’ said Liz dryly. ‘I was thinking about funding and weaponry – from the States, the Basques, North Africa, South America, wherever.’
He looked a little surprised that she knew anything about the past sources of IRA arms. ‘Their funding is local now as far as we know. But none of it’s legitimate. Crime of all sorts – drugs, prostitution, robberies. God knows what else.’