A Spy's Diploma
PROLOGUE: BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY
The old man in the pea coat relished his Sundays off; they were the only time he could evade his protection detail for a few precious hours with his wife.
They always went to Camden Market, to a little urban coffee shop that opened out on to the stalls where uni students would congregate, trying on vintage hats, jackets and sunglasses, or arguing about politics in a way that the old man would always smile at. He supposed this was what one would call ‘a view from the trenches’.
“One black coffee and one chamomile tea please,” his wife said to the pretty young waitress, as she balled up her scarf and set it down on the table.
“And one almond croissant,” the old man added.
His wife rounded on him with a glare.
“How exactly do you intend on keeping your diabetes in check, Aubrey, if you insist on eating as much sugar as you can lay your hands on?”
“Marcia,” Aubrey said, his tone faux-lamenting. “I’ve been eating your tuna salads all week, and while they are works of art, I deserve a treat on my day off.”
The waitress, who had remained silent during this exchange, now smiled at them warmly, in a way Aubrey had become accustomed to seeing from young people since he’d reached his senior years.
“Coming right up sir, ma’am.”
As the waitress walked off, Marcia crossed her arms and scowled lovingly.
“It’s like you’re trying to tempt fate,” she admonished.
“I’ve had a long week, my love,” Aubrey told her, in an attempt to defend himself. “Reggie’s retirement party was on Friday and I was stuck on conference calls with the Italian Ambassador about what happened in Milan. Twenty years of working together and I couldn’t make his retirement gig.”
“I wouldn’t have expected your line of work to hold retirement parties,” Marcia remarked.
“We’re more community-oriented than the movies give us credit for,” Aubrey chuckled.
“And what about you?” Marcia asked him, looking him in the eyes with a sense of what might have been longing. “You can’t do this job forever, much as you may want to. Reggie is three years younger than you.”
“Reggie’s daughter and grandkids are moving to DC in a week,” Aubrey reminded her. “He wants to be close to them.” He sighed and reached up to remove his glasses, “but you’re right.”
“I always am,” Marcia looked at him with a twinkle in her eyes.
“We’ve got two months left until the election,” Aubrey said, “and after that, I’ll retire and we can go on that cruise in the Caribbean you’ve been angling after. And before you deny it, I do check the search history on the computer.”
Marcia grinned as if she were a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, not a sixty-eight-year-old retired doctor. That seemed to have satisfied her.
As if on cue, the waitress approached them with the tray on which their order was placed.
Marcia reached for her purse, but Aubrey’s attention seemed to drift as he noticed a man standing by a stall of bucket hats about seventy metres away.
He was wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap and a long baggy coat, but did not seem to be a student, nor did he seem to be with anyone. In his right hand he held a leather briefcase. There was something unsettlingly familiar about --
“Aubrey,” he heard Marcia hiss.
He turned back to see her looking at him expectantly, while the waitress stood by the table with a slightly awkward smile.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” he apologised, “thank you very much.”
Marcia nodded to dismiss the waitress.
“Honestly,” she rolled her eyes at her husband.
“I’m sorry love,” he repeated, grimacing, “I spaced out for a moment.”
Marcia picked up her mug of tea and raised it.
Aubrey smiled warmly at her and did the same with his own mug.
They gently clinked mugs and took their first sips.
As Marcia set hers back on the table with a satisfied smile, Aubrey’s gaze wandered back towards where the man had been standing, and as he focused on the spot, the words of the Italian Ambassador echoed into his head: “stored in a briefcase… detonation timer was short… either very well trained or very fast…”
His eyes locked on to the leather briefcase, now set down by the stand without its owner. And immediately he knew.
“Marcia, get down!”
He launched himself up from his seat, rounding the table with surprising agility to throw himself on top of her, to shield her.
But that was exactly when, deep within the briefcase, a timer clicked to zero, and the bomb exploded.
CHAPTER 1: NUMBER TEN
As his car approached Downing Street, the new Director of MI6 rapidly assessed his feelings about the challenge that he imagined was facing him.
Hiram Norton was only thirty-seven, far too young to have such responsibility placed on him, frankly. Until a week ago he’d had the carefree, spontaneous, adrenaline-fuelled attitude of a field agent whose work was far too often beneath him. His promotion was not only sudden and surprising but, he realised, almost completely unwanted. And it was thrusting him into the daunting – no, utterly terrifying – world of politics.
The car stopped outside Number 10; his door was opened and he found himself facing the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, a man whom Norton had only before seen on TV screens, but who now seemed uncomfortably close and staring at him with a most unnerving degree of scepticism.
“The PM is waiting for you in his office,” the Chief of Staff informed him; “you will be escorted there by Officer Canton.”
He nodded to a man who was probably younger than Norton, but clearly had far more of the Chief’s respect than Norton did.
“This way, sir,” Canton said, his voice devoid of expression.
Norton followed him at a slight distance. This summons to the seat of power ought to have been satisfying, even exciting, he knew. He should have been rejoicing in ambition fulfilled. All he could focus on, however, was his awareness of the slightly questioning looks the staff were giving him as they went.
New blood, he reckoned: they could smell it from a mile away even if they had no idea who he was or what his business there was.
Already he wished he’d just taken the discharge instead of accepting the job.
The Prime Minister’s office was far closer than Norton would have expected it to be. Only one flight up; he didn’t realise he was there until Canton stopped and gave the slightest nod towards a mahogany door with a brass knocker.
He opened the door immediately, adrenaline telling him to get it over with as fast as possible, but almost immediately realised he should have knocked.
“The most gratifyingly eager entrance to this office I have yet witnessed,” a voice said dryly from behind a desk.
Shit; Norton’s discomfort seemed to double down on itself.
The Prime Minister, Philip Ravenwood, was on his second term with an election looming. Norton imagined that was stressful enough without having a terror threat thrust upon him two months before election day. He briefly wondered whether the lines on Ravenwood’s face were edited out for television or had appeared in the last fortnight.
“Director Norton,” Ravenwood studied him closely as if through a magnifying glass: “Two weeks on the job and you already look like death warmed up.”
Norton thought carefully about how to respond without appearing rude.
“These are testing times, Sir,” he decided on saying.
Ravenwood nodded. “Quite,” he agreed. “As a country we suffered tremendous losses in Camden. 41 civilian casualties, hospitals overloaded, and Director Connolly.”
Norton took a breath; he had been expecting the death of his predecessor to be a focal point of this meeting. Connolly had run the agency for fourteen years and had a reputation that Norton could only dream of living up to. He did not want to tell Ravenwood that constantly going on about Connolly was the opposite of motivating, but the truth was he’d already seen it in the eyes of practically every politician or intelligence leader he’d spoken to since his appointment so far.
“Is there any news on his wife?” he asked Ravenwood.
“Marcia broke her hip but was otherwise unharmed,” Ravenwood informed him with a solemn tone. “Connolly shielded her with his own body from the blast.”
That left an unpleasant taste in Norton’s mouth, as he tried not to dwell on the thought of that poor woman whose husband had given his life to protect her without hesitation.
“Do you know what the Opposition’s biggest criticism of me is?” Ravenwood queried.
Norton shook his head; he tended to avoid party politics until election day.
“My Cabinet, my advisors, are all old and white,” the PM replied. “Men and women who, in the minds of the younger voters, have had their time and know nothing of today’s world. You are not fully white, are you?”
And there it is, Norton thought to himself: the diversity card he had guessed Ravenwood would attempt to play had shown itself quickly.
“No sir,” he shook his head. “My grandmother was Arabic, from Jeddah. She moved here to study and stayed after she got married.”
“Which means you have an added perspective on prejudice and on foreign customs, having presumably experienced both yourself,” Ravenwood surmised.
Norton was really trying not to roll his eyes; his skin tone may have been slightly more swarthy than Ravenwood’s but he was hardly a person of colour. This entire logic felt very ethically dubious to him.
“If that is what you need, it is what I will provide,” he told the PM, desperately hoping that this part of the conversation was about to end.
“All of my Cabinet are over 55 at my express decision. Experience is everything when running a country. I need men and women who can make educated decisions without stabilisers if need be.”
He paused for a moment, staring at the fireplace to Norton’s right. He seemed to be looking deep into it as though it would swallow him whole.
“Aubrey Connolly was seventy years old,” he said, “and the injury that killed him would probably have meant a fortnight’s bed rest for you. With age comes experience, wisdom. But with youth comes strength, imagination. And we need imagination to make the monsters who bombed Camden pay for what they did. What do we know so far?”
Norton took a deep breath before stepping closer to the Prime Minister’s desk.
“The group who have claimed responsibility call themselves Black Terror,” he explained. “This is their fifth target in Europe since January; Milan, Madrid, Munich and Lyon being the others.”
“What do we know about them?”
“Not enough,” Norton grimaced; “they are neo-fascists. Black is the colour associated with fascism in Italy, their first target. Initially it was believed they were an Italian-based group but subsequent actions suggest that the choice of name was deliberately chosen by whoever’s behind it to misdirect investigatory efforts onto Italy.”
“Who is behind it?” Ravenwood said.
“We’re working on it,” Norton explained, “as are all the other affected nations.”
“All the other affected nations don’t have an election in nine weeks,” Ravenwood stated. “If they’re neo-fascists then they want to show off democratic weaknesses. Therefore a country about to have an election is a perfect target.”
“Exactly as we thought,” Norton agreed. “Analysis is underway on the bomb components, and we have been cross-referencing with the agencies willing to cooperate with us.”
“London’s casualties were higher than the other attacks,” Ravenwood recalled.
“The bomb in Camden also had a higher explosive yield than the others,” Norton said, “but Connolly’s death appears to have been unintentional. They had no way of knowing that he would be in Camden that day.”
“A victory on this is what my administration needs right now,” Ravenwood told him. “Every day the polls draw nearer and that sanctimonious hag Elsie Fritton draws closer to Downing Street. Not on my watch, that’s what I say. Destroying the Black Terror organisation is the win for democracy that will keep me in power.”
Norton had to wonder how ‘win for democracy’ and such hardline views on his opponent came hand in hand for Ravenwood, but quickly brushed it off. This was not a time for political analysis.
“You were Connolly’s best field agent and handler,” Ravenwood told him, “and I appointed you to the job because I don’t want you confined by red tape from anyone besides me. Whatever you need, whenever you need it. Take them down.”
Pressure and confidence seemed to do a waltz in Norton’s mind as he responded.
CHAPTER 2: A GILDED CAGE
Seven Weeks Later…
As Dolly Lennon waved her son off to his nanny, she had to wonder why he needed one, given that retiring aged twenty had given her the freedom to spend her days the way she wanted.
It was a recent thing. On Jed’s third birthday, her mother-in-law had surprised her by hiring a nanny to ‘free up her time for more meaningful pursuits’. Dolly had told her that raising her child was the most meaningful pursuit she could think of, but caved when she’d realised that she would never win against centuries of aristocratic tradition. Agreeing to move back into the home of her in-laws after the terror attack had been, on balance, one of her top three worst mistakes.
She checked herself in the rear-view mirror before reversing, more glad than ever that the tabloids had backed off on her now as she lamented that she had not washed her hair that morning, nor done any makeup whatsoever. She hated it, but newspapers, social media and her old agent had pressured her into wearing it to be the ‘perfect young actress’ that her mother had raised her to be.
Ten years ago, when she was fourteen, she would be driven from hotels and rented accommodation to film sets, TV studios and other mindless celebrity drivel by a chauffeur. Now she drove out of her own house every morning for no reason, with no purpose.
She drove out of the gates quite slowly, as the path was deliberately winding so that guests could see the impressive lawn features her in-laws had spent fortunes on as they came to the house.
Once on the road, however, she looked around sneakily. It was 10am on a Wednesday; no one was looking. She switched gears and watched the speedometer climb up and up and up as she pressed down on the pedal harder.
Her regular morning speed through the neighbourhood was about the only thing in her life that gave her any kind of adrenaline these days.
She felt her heart rate climb with the speedometer, breathing faster and faster as she spun the wheel to turn a corner as though she was a flamboyant criminal escaping justice, almost tempted to turn around and yell to some fake authority that they’d never catch her.
But as she did, she saw the blue lights of a police car flashing at her to stop.
As she slowed down she felt a mixture of dread and confusion race through her. Police never came through this neighbourhood, ever.
She put the handbrake on and reached into her handbag for her licence.
But as she wound down the window, a lone male police officer seemed to gawp at her.
“You’re Dolly Lennon, aren’t you?”
She eyed him carefully; he was about forty, balding and slightly rotund, probably on traffic duty because his skills lacked in other departments.
“Yes I am,” she said, handing over her licence.
“You played Stacy whatshername in ‘Malibu Makeover’,” the policeman said, before something dawned on him and he quickly added, “My daughter loves that movie.”
“I’ll give it to you, that’s not the character most men your age remember me for,” Dolly smiled, though internally shuddered.
“You retired, didn’t you?” the policeman recalled, “a few years back when…”
When my mother married a hotshot Hollywood director and decided that she didn’t need to milk me for fame anymore, Dolly wanted to say.
“I got married,” she finished his sentence with the same story she’d told the papers.
“Yes of course,” the policeman seemed to remember now. “You’re married to Sir Gerald Bardsley’s son aren’t you? From Hollywood royalty to English aristocracy; my wife reckons you have it made.”
“Yep,” Dolly smiled as convincingly as possible, “living the dream.”
The policeman suddenly gave her a sheepish look.
“Now… you were going 65 in a residential area,” he said awkwardly, taking out his ticket book. Then he smiled at her and ripped off the ticket, turning it round and holding out the pen. “Could you address it to Annie?”
Dolly took a deep breath and nodded. This was her life forever it seemed: the price of speeding knocked down to one autograph.
“How old is she?”
“Ten,” the policeman smiled at her expectantly.
Two hours after her run-in with the police officer, Dolly pulled up to the fanciest apartment building in Kensington, a bag of clothes in her back seat and a feeling of emptiness in her chest. She sat in her car for a moment, composing herself before getting out and locking it.
She usually came here on a Wednesday, knowing it was the only day that both the people she was going to see were certain to be home.