"Wouldn't do that if I were you," Dimitri said.
The woman in Harry's office was fiddling with the lever on the desk chair, which was set forward at an angle threatening to tip her onto the floor. She didn't look up. "Do what?"
"I'm told it took Harry years to get that chair right."
She gave him a wry smile as she straightened, hooking her hair out of her face, and Dimitri could confirm for Tariq and Beth who'd volunteered him for the recon, yes, she was infeasibly good-looking. He checked to see if she was glaring at him. She wasn't, so he took another step into the room and offered his hand.
"Dimitri Levendis," he said. "You must be our new Section Chief."
"Erin Watts," she said, shaking his hand with another faintly amused smile, "Acting Head of Section D."
Dimitri screwed up his face. "Seriously? Right, of course, sorry. Hence... Harry's office."
At least he hadn't dived straight in to telling her she'd got the wrong desk, which had been Beth's suggestion. Then again, Beth probably wouldn't have been as wrong-footed by Erin's supermodel looks. Or who knows, maybe she would've. Dimitri had yet to figure out what could wrong-foot Beth.
Erin checked her watch. "You start early."
"Oh, it's just the three of us here," he said, grateful for the hand out of the hole he'd just dug. "Not everyone yet."
They'd arrived at the same time without any sort of arrangement, he and Tariq and Beth, none of them admitting that two weeks of enforced leave had got to them more than they'd thought it would. Ruth, of course, was at the tribunal, as she had been every day despite repeat orders to take time to rest. Dimitri didn't really know which of them was crazier.
"Good." She was back to battling with the chair. "I'll see you all in the briefing room at half eight."
"How much did she offer you?" Tariq asked as Dimitri sat back down at his desk. "A hundred quid to not tell Harry she'd touched his sacred things?"
"Luckily I carried out proper reconnaissance before attempting to blackmail our boss's boss."
Beth arched her eyebrows. "She's Harry?"
All three of them turned with perfect synchronisation to watch Erin unpacking a box of books onto the shelf. "Oh, fabulous," said Beth with surprising vehemence. "Just what we need."
Section D was not what Erin had expected. It took her forty-two minutes to realise this, which was approximately two minutes longer than it took her to defuse all the carefully crafted annoyances Harry Pearce had left in his office.
Carefully crafted was probably a bit of an overstatement, but really, Erin could not think of a single reason why a person would file the first page of every dossier in the back of the file preceding it, or un-install every piece of useful software on the computer, or lock their pens in a drawer and put the key in an eyes-only envelope behind the bookshelf, unless to specifically irritate their successor.
It was possible, though, that Harry had never used a piece of useful software in his life. It was also possible that he was as mad as some people said he was. She decided to let it slide.
She called the team into the briefing room. No one had spoken to her, no one had even looked at her except for Dimitri, and damned if she was going to go desk-to-desk introducing herself like some sort of substitute teacher. They filed in, the admiral, the analyst, the techie and the mercenary – she stopped herself before she could imagine the bizarre punchline to that joke.
"Right," she said, "first point of order. I'm not Harry Pearce, I never will be, and I'm not going to try to be."
Ruth Evershed tensed a fraction. Sir Harry Pearce, she should've said. Too late now.
"Of course you know that there'll be people from the JIC and Internal Affairs gathering evidence for the tribunal. Your first priority will be assisting them with whatever they need. We'll be on a half caseload until things quieten down." She paused. "I've been asked specifically to emphasise that none of you are under investigation or in any sort of trouble. That is, until the moment anyone contacts, attempts to contact or even thinks of contacting Sir Harry. He is absolutely off limits for however long the investigation may go on."
It was the spiel she'd been given from those above, and she'd been prepared to soften it with a follow-up, but no one was protesting or even looking very interested. Ruth looked at Beth, who looked at Tariq, who looked at Dimitri. Dimitri shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Can I ask – when can we expect a new Section Chief?"
This was the question? Erin didn't miss a beat. "It'll just be us for now, until things are sorted out. I trust we can learn to work well together."
She briefed them on the current case, which was accepted without comment, then dismissed them back to their desks. She had to admit she was a little disappointed. She'd heard the stories about Section D's unwavering loyalty to Harry Pearce, everyone had, and she'd expected her stint in his seat to be some sort of leadership test, a right of passage.
It might've got at someone with more ego, but Erin, despite her stunning looks and enviable brain, had very little room for self-importance. She hadn't got into the Service for the career path to authority. She'd just worked hard, and if people wanted to put ladders in front of her, well she'd be stupid not to climb them, wouldn't she? If she did well here, Head of Section A would be waiting for her when she got back. David had as good as promised he would be retiring before Christmas. Maybe it would be easier than she'd thought.
There were three days of quiet before Erin realised, finally, what was going on. She deliberated for a minute, then timed a walk down the corridor to coincide with Ruth.
"They know he's not coming back, don't they?"
Ruth fidgeted with the files she was carrying, and smiled too brightly. "Well, in a way he was never really here."
Erin paused. "I'm not talking about Lucas North, Ruth," she said gently. "I'm talking about Harry."
"Oh," Ruth said. "Oh, yes, of course." She shuffled the files again.
Erin let her go. She tried to get back into the report she was writing, but she was oddly unsettled by Ruth's reaction. Jesus, even if Harry was exonerated of the more serious charges, he'd never be allowed back in charge of Section D. Yet his team were apparently putting up with her while they waited for his triumphant return.
What did one man do to command such loyalty? A flawed man at that; possibly, if you could believe the nonsense being spouted at the tribunal, criminally flawed. She tried to imagine the team who were waiting for her back at Section A following her unquestioningly into holy war, mutiny or high treason. Perhaps it was to their credit that she couldn't. Harry Pearce had commanded that sort of loyalty from no less than four Section Chiefs and a steady stream of personnel under each.
Erin found her place in the report and forced herself to get back into the right mindset. The sooner this was over, the better.
"When're we getting real work, then?" Beth asked, as if on cue, leaning in the doorway with arms folded and chin up ready for battle.
Erin closed the report again. "I'm sorry?"
"Come on, this is bollocks you've given us. Is it punishment? Is that it? You've got us chasing after paperclips in files so old they were cold during the Cold War."
There was no point in repeating the explanation she'd been given, that the low caseload was to compensate for the inconvenience of the investigation. In three days the JIC had set foot in the Grid exactly once, to request the log of everyone's movements during the Albany operation. They had all they needed for the investigation in Harry Pearce himself.
"Section D has been through a lot in the past month. No one expects you to – "
Beth rolled her eyes. "Oh I see, tainted by the brush, betrayal is a cancer et cetera."
"That's not what I said."
"Who knows which one of us will be next," Beth said darkly, ignoring Erin. "Me, if this fucking nonsense doesn't end soon. How are we supposed to prove ourselves capable of fieldwork if we don't get any fieldwork? If we don't even have a Section Chief? Unbefuckinglievable."
Her indignation seemed almost more amusement than anger, which Erin was sharp enough to know didn't make it any less genuine.
"And when is that going to be, by the way? Have they even told you? Have you even asked? What are you doing here, running a Section from behind a desk with no one on the ground?"
"No one's forcing you to stay," Erin pointed out.
That shocked Beth into a moment's silence. Then she threw her hands up in the air. "Well, that was a worthwhile exercise."
She stormed out. Erin put her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes tiredly. Rosie had been up most of the night with a fever and she was running on two hours less than her usual two-hours-too-little. It didn't help with her mood.
When she looked up, she found she wasn't surprised to see Dimitri in the doorway, smiling apologetically. She motioned him in.
"Don't worry about Beth," he offered, resting his hands on the back of the chair in preference to sitting down. "She gets – tense, chasing paper. She'll be over it by the morning."
Erin arched an eyebrow. "I hope so. Is she the only one?"
He hesitated. "Everyone's a little stir-crazy, I suppose."
"You've all been through a lot," Erin said again. It sounded trite, but she thought Dimitri would understand that it was more an explanation for how the Section was being treated than an excuse for Beth's outburst.
"Trust me, downtime doesn't help. Look, I know you're only here for a while, but would it kill you to get us some fieldwork?"
Erin raised her hands. "Not my decision, I'm afraid."
"Yeah, but you're better placed to fight our corner than we are." He grinned suddenly, spinning the chair around and sitting in it. "Come on, where's the harm in it? You're here for another month or so, then you're stuck behind a desk for the rest of your career. Why not be Section Chief a little longer? Might be the last chance you get."
"Can't come too soon," Erin said, thinking of the countless hours in surveillance vans she'd so very nearly put behind her. If it got the team back in line though, Dimitri was right. Where was the harm in showing she'd tried? She was only killing time until the tribunal handed down the verdict.
"I'll see what I can do," she said.
It was in Dimitri's nature to befriend the people he worked with. Not that he'd call most of them friends, necessarily, but friendly enough for easy conversation. His time in the military had taught him that there was no point holding grudges about who you'd been thrown together with or who you'd been split up from without a day's notice. You had to to make the best you could of whoever was on your team.
Erin was easy – walls ten foot high, yes, but there was nothing calculating about her reserve, and he'd won a few smiles which he‘d like to think weren't entirely put on. What was difficult was convincing Tariq and Beth that he wasn't brownnosing.
"I don't know what you have against her," he protested after three or four pints.
"I don't know what you have for her," Beth said, then added, "oh wait, yes I do."
Dimitri rolled his eyes. "So she's hot. So what? Makes a nice contrast to Harry."
"Don't kid yourself. She'll be out of here and back to those boring suckups at Section A as fast as she can. Why are you even bothering?"
Dimitri shrugged, knowing it'd only annoy her more in this mood, until she reached breaking point and abruptly stopped caring. Beth shoved back her chair. "Fuck this. I need another beer. Any takers?"
Dimitri showed her his three-quarters-full glass. She stalked off to the bar.
Tariq had been quiet for the last few minutes, busy texting somebody so fast that Dimitri was amazed he hadn't pulled a muscle. He watched for a while, fascinated.
"You know they're going to disband the Section, don't you," Tariq said suddenly, abandoning the phone.
Dimitri put down his drink half way to his mouth. "What? No I don't. Who said that?"
He shrugged. "No one. I figured it out."
"Oh, well then."
"Don't just – Look, it makes sense. It's the only thing that does. Why do you think they sent us Erin?"
Dimitri glanced around, but Beth was stuck at the bar. "I don't know. Beth thinks she's being punished."
"Why has she been promised Head of Section A then?"
"She has? Who told you that?"
Tariq moved his hand dismissively. "Everyone knows."
Dimitri looked at his beer, and figured it wasn't worthwhile pointing out that he hadn't known. The conversation was making him uneasy. He wondered if he should go help Beth carry the drinks.
"Anyway," Tariq pressed, "it makes sense. Without Harry, without a senior field officer to step in as Section Chief... it's just logical to reassign us to other sections. Bound to happen sooner or later. Shit, Section D has been understaffed for years for that very reason. You know we used to have two full-time techies? And not just two slackers either, two geniuses no less. They spent half their time dealing with the everyday crap and the other half doing whatever the hell research they wanted. You know the face recog software we've been trawling ancient surveillance with? They wrote that. While working a full caseload."
"Look at the shit you invent while working a full caseload," Dimitri put in.
"I know, I know. I'm a genius too. I'm just saying, if someone up there was committed to Section D existing on more than a month-by-month basis, they'd give me another techie, wouldn't they."
Dimitri didn't reply. He wished Tariq would give him a bit more warning before springing shit like this, so he could, for example, not have had that fourth beer. Tariq took his silence as doubt. "What about Ruth?" he continued. "Imagine what she could do with a team of analysts under her."
"She'd still work fourteen hours a day."
"Of course she would. But imagine. There're guys in Thames House just twiddling their thumbs because they've too many analysts."
Beth was paying for drinks, having apparently decided to swap beer for tequila shots. Dimitri sighed. "So, what? You going to take all your paranoid theories to Erin?" He was only half joking.
Tariq wasn't joking at all. "Already have."
Dimitri almost choked on his beer. "Jesus. When?"
"Last night. Got her as she was leaving."
"What did she say?"
"She deny it?"
"Course not. Even if she hasn't had the direct orders herself, which is unlikely, she knows nothing's off the table. It'd be stupid to deny something they might turn around tomorrow and tell her to do."
Beth was heading back towards them, glasses balancing precariously. "So what do we do now?" Dimitri asked.
Tariq shrugged again. "Make new friends?" he suggested. "If the powers that be want to dismantle the Section, I don't think there's much that we can do."
"Yeah," Dimitri said, feeling exhausted all of a sudden. "I suppose there's not."
Running was when Erin did her thinking. She didn't get out as often as she liked, but she usually managed every other day. With Rosie still home sick, she hadn't been out for over a week.
She blamed this for the fact it took her so long to remember about the perks of her new role. She hurried back to the office, once again having run out of time at lunch to actually have lunch. She'd been stuck on the phone for longer than she'd planned, first telling Rosie the story of the three bears, then listening while her mother detailed what Rosie had eaten and what she'd thrown up again. "She's fine," Valerie assured her. "Goodness, the number of times you threw up when you had the flu as a kid. She'll be bouncing off the walls by the time you're home."
Once she'd cleared her emails and finished skimming the weekly briefing for the Home Office, Erin calmly opened a request with Registry and listed five or six archived operations at random. Names she'd heard in some of the wilder tales of Section D, or names she'd come across in cryptic cross-references – ref: Waterfall, details redacted.
The files were delivered within the hour, and to her surprise only the Tiresias file had been withheld. She was Acting Head of Section, she could request whatever files she wanted.
She cast her eyes around the grid. Everyone had their heads down, a few people on the phone. Only Tariq and Dimitri were typing with any concentration, but the alternate bursts suggested they were messaging each other rather than absorbed in work.
Briefly Erin considered digging through the records to find out what they were saying, but she'd never been comfortable with that kind of omniscience. There was something quite different about information that had been ordered in a file, with the express purpose of someone reading it, even if until recently that someone had not been her. She shut the door, sat down and opened the first file. Half an hour later, she closed it and slipped it into her bag.
She read them all that night, in the beanbag in Rosie's room while Rosie coughed and complained, until suddenly it was half past midnight and Valerie was standing in the doorway.
"Is she finally asleep?"
"Yes," said Erin, realising that Rosie had been so for a good hour.
"Are you going to stay here all night?"
Erin closed the file and stretched tiredly. "No, no, I think I'll go to bed now. Just wanted to make sure she got to sleep."
"What are you reading? Work?"
"Yes. But it can wait," she added, when she saw her mother getting her 'you work too hard I despair of you' face. "Goodnight, Mum."
She was partway through the last file, so she finished reading it in her own bed. It was addictive. It was like an airport spy novel crossed with the best material they'd had in training to demonstrate how not to do things. Some of Harry Pearce's decisions she liked to think she would never have made, his blindness in the face of a friend's betrayal having lead to disaster on more than one occasion. Other decisions she never wanted to make, and some she didn't think she could've.
From a purely methodological point of view, though – God, she didn't remember ever working on ops like this. Infiltrations, wildly risky bargains and ambushes, pre-emptive surveillances which must have been illegal but more often than not turned out to be justified. Perhaps she'd just forgotten how ridiculous that one percent of fieldwork could be, around the ninety-nine percent of sitting in surveillance vans.
Dimitri hadn't really expected anything to change. Two more weeks of mind-numbing archive trawling, then, when he had finally given up hope, a fieldwork assignment. Just a routine sweep of the bugs in a former arms dealer's mansion, which obviously had been returning zero product for long enough that the powers that be were satisfied Section D couldn't screw it up.
Except that Dimitri had.
"Erin," he said when she answered her phone, which at least let her know he wasn't stuck in the room where the aging and purportedly reformed crime lord was toasting his daughter's happy marriage in front of a hundred family and friends.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
"I fucked it up." He was pacing up and down the empty street, wishing pointlessly for a crowd. "I'm sorry. Jesus, I'm such an idiot."
"What happened?" Her voice was quick and sharp.
Dimitri closed his eyes briefly. "He had private security, like you said, some guy checking everyone's IDs against the guest list. I had my wallet instead of my cover's. I didn't even realise til I already had it open and ready to show him."
"Did he see it?"
"No. I don't think so. Maybe. I dropped it and faked being sick. Couldn't risk it if he had."
"She took me back to the car. Thought I really was sick at first." He paused. "We drove a few blocks away and I've left her in the car."
"You did the right thing," Erin said, then to make up for the compliment, "Jesus, Dimitri."
Dimitri all but kicked the kerb in frustration. "Sorry, I'm really sorry. Does it have to be tonight?"
"How often to you think Fernando Obey invites a hundred people and their unspecified partners into his fortress for his daughter's wedding? Look, it's fine, I'll do it. Give me an hour. You have the equipment?"
"Leave it at the second drop point, I'll pick it up on the way."
"What should I do?"
"Go home," Erin said firmly. "Tell Silvana to go back to the party. I don't want anyone seeing you hanging around now you've left. We'll debrief in the morning."
Erin wasn't surprised to find Dimitri waiting for her on the grid, still in his evening wear, though he'd undone the black tie. She took off her coat and signed in the surveillance gear.
"How did it go?" he asked, the very definition of shame-faced.
"Fine. Boring. Loud."
And she was still buzzing with the thrill of it, she didn't say. Then, because he looked so miserable, she added, "My guess is that if Fernando Obey knew we were still running bugs in his mansion, he'd invite us right in. It's been so long since he's had any contact with that old world."
"Look, I'm really – "
"I know you are. It's fine. Shit happens. You caught it in time and no one's been hurt."
He nodded. "Thanks." She caught him staring at her dress, which he was honest enough not to pretend he wasn't. "That just something you had lying around?"
"I have a lot of things just lying around." She headed into Harry's office to pick up her spare shoes, leaving Dimitri perched on the edge of his desk. The dress was from before her pregnancy. It was a miracle it still fit.
Erin was used to being on the outside of the teams she'd lead. She'd been behind a desk since Rosie, and as she'd transferred to a new section after returning from maternity leave, she'd been five years working outside of that bond forged in fieldwork. It had only been when she was scanning the bugs in Fernando Obey's library and waiting for a heavy hand to fall on her shoulder that she'd realised how Dimitri must have felt screwing things up. Not just embarrassed, and frightened obviously, but frustrated too. This was what they were supposed to be good at.
"Jesus, I could use a drink," she said over her shoulder. "Silvana is great cover but wow can she talk."
Dimitri laughed. "I should be thanking you for saving me from an evening with her." He followed Erin into the office, opened a cupboard and produced a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. "Will this do?"
"Where was that hidden?"
"Harry's not-so-secret place."
"I thought I'd found every surprise in here."
She accepted her measure and swirled it around the glass before drinking. It had been a long time since she'd tasted whiskey. Longer since it had tasted this good.
"Do you miss it?"
She pulled back her hair and started to unclasp her pearl earrings. They pinched like hell – she couldn't remember how she'd ever stood to wear them. She'd have to invest in some new ones.
"Miss what?" she said, thinking of the drink.
"Fieldwork. Now you're behind a desk."
"Good to know I've still got the moves."
"Do you need to thank me, then?"
The second earring finally came loose. Erin fixed him with a stare. "Are you saying that you swapped the wallets on purpose?"
Dimitri dipped his head, smiling. "Got you out from behind a desk."
Erin couldn't stop herself laughing aloud. "Dimitri Levendis, you are a rotten liar."
Dimitri looked wounded. Then, after a minute, "Are you saying that because it was you – ?"
"Well, it got me out from behind a desk." She laughed again at his expression, rolling the glass in her hand. "No, I didn't, Dimitri. That was one hundred percent your own stupid mistake."
Dimitri shook his head in disbelief. Then, suddenly bold: "They're saying Section D's going to be disbanded."
"Who's saying?" she asked carefully.
"Just a rumour."
Erin emptied her glass. "Nothing's been decided," she said, which was true. Even Harry Pearce's most staunch opponents had the courtesy to wait until after the tribunal. Then – well. There was no point thinking about what she'd been asked to do until then.
Dimitri looked at her. "We work well together," he said. "We may be an odd bunch, but we work well together. We just need a leader."
"And Harry Pearce to be magically acquitted and allowed back as Head of Section?"
"Stranger things have happened where Harry's concerned, believe me."
Erin, for the first time, found that she did.