For once Alvin Jackson had made the wrong choice.
Usually he had an unerring eye for a soft target. It wasn't about size-once a man built like a nightclub bouncer had cried when Jackson showed him the knife. No, it was something less tangible, a kind of passivity that Jackson could sniff out, the way a sniffer dog smells contraband.
Not that he expected much resistance from anyone in this part of London. He stood against the iron railings in one of the squares that run off the side streets below Kensington High Street. The night was moonless, and a mass of grey cloud hung over the city like a dirty blanket. Earlier in the evening it had rained: now the tyres of passing cars hissed as they splashed through the puddles, and the pavements were the colour of dark sodden sponges. Jackson had picked a corner where two of the street lights were out. He'd already checked carefully for patrolling policemen and traffic wardens. There weren't any.
The woman walking towards Jackson along the opposite pavement was well into her thirties-not young enough to be foolish and too affluent to be streetwise. She wore a smartly cut black overcoat, her hair was coiffed back, doubtless from a fancy salon, and her heels went clack-clack-clack on the pavement. There was a bag hooked over her right shoulder, one of those trendy leather bags with floppy handles. That's where her purse would be, Jackson decided.
He waited against the railings until she was about fifteen feet away, then sauntered casually across the road and stood on the pavement, blocking her path.
She stopped, and he was pleased to see she looked a little startled. "Hello," he said softly, and her eyes widened slightly. She had a delicate, pretty face, he thought. "I like your bag," he said now, pointing at it with one extended arm.
"Thank you," she said crisply, which surprised him, since most of the women were too scared to speak. Funny how reactions differed. Maybe she was foreign.
With his other hand he showed her the knife. It was a seven-inch blade, with a sweeping crescent curve that ended in a honed point. The Americans called them Bowie knives-Jackson liked the name. He said, "Give me the bag."
The woman didn't panic. That was a relief; the last thing he wanted was for her to scream. She just nodded, then reached with her left arm and unhooked the bag from her shoulder. She held the bag's handles with one hand, and he started to reach forward to take it, then realised she was rummaging in it with the other. "Just hand it over," he was saying as the woman withdrew her hand. It suddenly shot out straight towards him, and something glinted in the dark.
He felt an agonising pain in his left arm, right below his shoulder. "Jesus!" he shouted, wincing. What had she just done to him? He looked and saw blood spurting from his arm. The pain was excruciating. I'm going to cut you bitch, he thought, full of rage. He began to move forward, but the metal implement she held glinted again and jabbed him sharply in the middle of his chest. Once, then twice, each time causing him to flinch.
He was in agony, and when Jackson saw the woman's hand move again, he turned and ran as fast as he could. He reached the corner, clutching his wounded arm, and thought who the hell was that? Whoever she was, Jackson decided, as blood continued to ooze through his fingers, he'd picked the wrong lady.
Looking around her carefully, she saw that there was no one else in the square. Good. Calmly, she took a tissue out and wiped the end of the Stanley knife, sticky from her assailant's blood, then retracted the blade. Normally she would never have resisted a street robbery, but there had been no way she was going to give the man her bag.
A light went on outside one of the houses and a curtain was drawn back, so she moved away quickly, still holding the Stanley knife, in case the man was waiting for her, ready to have another go. But leaving the square, she saw no one on the pavement ahead of her. A taxi passed by; it held a couple, necking in the back. At the corner she turned into a small side street which ended in a cul-de-sac. She stopped at the entrance to a large mansion block, let herself in, then climbed to the second floor. Here she unlocked a door and entered a flat, turning on a light in the small sitting room. The place was sparsely furnished by the landlord, gloomy in its bareness. But it didn't matter to her. She wasn't staying long-she only rented for a month at a time, and this was her third place. She knew that once her orders came she would be living far more comfortably.
She went to the bedroom where two computer bags sat in the corner, and carried them both to the pine desk in the sitting room. One bag held a small black machine that resembled a sleek sort of CD player; the other was a laptop computer. Connecting the two with a USB cable, she pressed a button on the black machine, and watched as it transferred to the laptop data that it had recorded in her absence. On the computer she then ran a software routine that filled the screen with numbers.
Sitting down in front of the desk, she reached into her own bag, the one the man had tried to take from her, and took out a large, hardcover book. It was a novel, well-thumbed-An Instance of the Fingerpost. She wondered idly if she would ever read it.
She opened the book, flicked through it and finding the page she wanted carefully put it down next to the computer and drew up a chair.
Twenty minutes later she was finished. On a scratch pad she had a list of numbers, each with an accompanying word she had written down. She stood up now, and took the single page of Russian text to the lavatory, where she ripped it into small pieces before flushing it away. She put the black machine and the laptop into their respective carrying bags, then returned them to the bedroom.
Finally, she came back to the desk. She decided to allow herself a cigarette, and fished in her bag for a pack of Marlboros. What she really craved was a Sobranie. Presumably one of the fancy tobacconists in London, like Davidoff's, would sell them. But Marlboros would have to do, she thought, as she lit her cigarette. Always remember, they had drilled her again and again, it's the little things you think don't matter that can give you away. She had memorised the message on the single page of text and now she ran over it in her mind, focusing on the key instruction.
You should begin now.
I suppose it all went as well as could be expected." Charles Wetherby was standing by the window of his office, looking down at the Thames, where the little waves bristled, sawtoothed in the late November wind. A tourist cruising boat moved jerkily in the chop, its decks empty, the few passengers sitting snugly in the cabin below.
"Thank goodness it was no worse," said Liz Carlyle from her chair in front of Wetherby's desk.
She had given evidence to the inquiry for over three hours; Wetherby had been there a day and a half. Now he looked tired, strained, and unusually for him, made no effort to disguise it. Sighing, he rubbed a palm against his cheekbone thoughtfully, then turned and faced Liz."DG says you did very well. Not that you ever had anything to worry about."
She nodded, wishing she shared his confidence. The fallout from that last operation had not yet subsided. The discovery of a mole in MI5, who had been intent on undermining the Service, was likely to reverberate for years to come. As the Home Secretary had taken to saying, with the monotony of a mantra, "If the Security Service isn't fit for purpose, how the hell can we win the war on terrorism?"
The same Home Secretary had insisted on an inquiry into the whole sorry business. Fortunately he'd eventually grasped that a public inquiry would be a disaster, so it had been held in closed session, chaired by a former Cabinet secretary, assisted by a judge and a trusted businessman. No prying press, no trial by headline; no MPs posturing in some parliamentary committee room for the benefit of the cameras. The report when it came had been a model of Whitehall-ese, beautifully expressed, utterly undramatic, no blame, reasonably fair.
"What will happen now?" asked Liz.
Wetherby moved back to his desk, sitting down and picking up a pencil. He tapped distractedly on a pile of papers. "There'll be a review of recruitment, enhanced vetting procedures ... other things. But as I say, you've got nothing to worry about."
"Have you, Charles?" she asked. It had been Wetherby himself who had predicted heads would roll after the near-debacle and the Thames House rumour mill had suggested Wetherby's would be one.
He shrugged, leaning back in his chair. He was not as engaged as usual, which alarmed Liz. What else could he be thinking about? Finally he said, "I'd like to think it will be all right for me as well. But who knows? I've learnt these things are hard to predict. Anyway, I won't be here for the aftermath. I'm taking some leave."
"Oh," she said.
He heard the question in her voice. She was wondering whether this was voluntary. "It's my choice, Liz." Wetherby looked at her. "I'm entitled to a sabbatical and I've decided I should spend some time at home." He gestured with a quick motion of his head at a framed photograph of his wife and sons.
Liz nodded. This was why he seemed so subdued. Joanne Wetherby had been seriously ill for as long as Liz had known Charles-over five years. It could not have been easy, juggling his job with his role as the husband of an invalid and the father of two boys. She was sure he would miss the challenge, the excitement, and the colleagues. And her, Liz wondered, would he miss her?
Liz asked, "How long will you be away?" Wetherby shrugged, and flicked a non-existent piece of fluff off his suit jacket. "I'm not sure. Perhaps three months, something like that. We'll have to see how things go. While I'm away, Michael Binding will run the branch."
Oh God, thought Liz, not that condescending oaf. They'd crossed swords more than once. She tried her best to mask her reaction, but Wetherby gave her an ironic smile. "Don't worry. He won't be telling you what to do."
"No. You're being posted. DG and I have discussed it, and we want you to move to Counter-Espionage."
"What?" she asked bluntly, unable to contain her surprise. Nor her dismay. During the Cold War, Counter-Espionage had been the plum assignment, the primus inter pares of the Service's various branches. But in a post-9/11 world, its light was dimmer, overshadowed by Counter-Terrorism. Counter-Espionage was something of a backwater now.
"You need a change. You know that." "I don't need a demotion, Charles. That's what it is. I feel as though I'm being pushed out." She paused, realising that her hurt was showing, and bit her lip.
Charles looked at her gravely. "That's not it at all," he said. "We just want to broaden your experience. People think espionage is no longer a problem. Well, they're wrong. There are more foreign intelligence officers in London now than before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Russians are back in force, the Chinese are more active than ever. So are some of the Middle Eastern countries. And the game's changed, you know. It used to be all about political and military intelligence-all about winning the Cold War and the fighting war that never happened. Deadly enough, but strictly for professionals. Now there's money, big money in it. We wouldn't be posting you there if there wasn't a job for you to do."
"Who will I report to?" she asked.
"To Brian Ackers," said Charles. "You'll be in the Russian Section and he's the assistant director. He's also acting director of the whole Counter-Espionage Branch for the time being."
Liz raised her eyebrows. Brian Ackers was a Cold War veteran who hadn't moved on. Prickly, touchy, a man who resented the displacement of counter-espionage as the Service's highest priority.
"I know he's not the easiest man to work for," Wetherby continued, "but he's got enormous experience. You could learn a lot from him. After all, that's where the whole intelligence game started and where many of the real skills still are."
Liz nodded, "Yes Charles," she said, trying not to sound as disappointed as she felt.
"Brian won't be there forever, Liz," said Charles encouragingly. "He'll retire in two years." He looked at her meaningfully. "There may be opportunities after that."
She tried to take this in. Was he suggesting she might replace Brian Ackers one day? Become an assistant director? She was flattered, but she still found the prospect of a move to Counter-Espionage uninspiring. "When do I start?" she asked.
"Next week. Peggy Kinsolving is going with you."
So, thought Liz, they're moving everyone closely involved with the mole investigation. But this was good news. Peggy had been seconded by MI6 in the previous year, then opted to stay on in MI5. She was a desk officer, with boundless energy and an almost unique ability to ferret out facts. If Wetherby and DG were offering her to Liz, she was more than happy to accept the gift.
"Anyway, I'm off next week, so I'll say goodbye now. Good luck in the new post," said Wetherby, and Liz took her cue and stood up. He held out his hand and grasped hers. Suddenly he said, in an awkward, tentative voice, "Do me one favour, please."
"Of course," she said, suddenly near tears.
"Stay in touch." He said this shyly, then quickly looked down at the papers on his desk.
And turning to go, Liz saw through the window the tour boat returning from its quick jaunt up river, moving more smoothly, traveling with the receding tide. Dusk was turning to dark. As the windows lit up in the offices and flats on the far bank, the river became quite quickly a gleaming black flood, flecked with gold.
Excerpted from Illegal Action by Stella Rimington Copyright © 2008 by Stella Rimington. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.