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Up a Long Ladder

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         I was born on a Dublin street
         Where the loyal drums do beat
         And the loving British feet they tramped all o’er us
         And every single night
         When me father came home tight
         He’d invite the neighbours outside with this chorus:

         Come out, you Black-and-Tans,
         Come out and fight me like a man!
         Show your wife how you won medals down in Flanders
         Tell her how the IRA
         Made you run like hell away
         From the green and lovely lanes of Killeshandra . . .

 

knot


Prologue:  Selection

 

Someday, Major Kathleen Walsh told herself, computers would actually be able to store and display images, and the whole tiresome process of sorting back and forth between the computerized lists and the paper dossiers would be fast and simple.  Until then, she was never going to end a day without a throbbing ache behind her eyes.

But she was sure she had the best possible match now.  She pushed aside the other photos in the stack and studied her final choice:  a burly, balding man in a suit and tie, intelligent eyes giving life and spark even to an official posed photo.  Laugh lines in the face gave him a jovial look, but there was a tough strength to the expression that belied any sense of softness or complacency.

“Right, Grant.  You can bag the next round of searching; we’ve got our man.”  At her words, her assistant glanced up from another stack of dossiers.  She held the file out to him.  After a moment’s glance, he began to read aloud in the rich, plummy Oxbridge accent that he knew privately annoyed her.

“Peter David Thornton.  American.  Born in Chicago, South Side, in – well, let’s just say he’s well past the first flower of youth.  Still holding up under the full brunt as an accredited field operative, hmm, not bad at his age.  Divorced – no surprise there – one son, no close family ties – again, no surprise.”

“Divorced.  He’s not Catholic, then?  Hard to tell with an American . . . ”

“No information on religious affiliation.”

“Fancy that not mattering enough to mention,” Walsh murmured.

Grant cleared his throat and continued.  “Parents have shuffled off the mortal coil and need have no fear he will put them to the blush.  Father was a copper, son went into military intelligence . . . ”

“You can leave off the inevitable cliché about oxymorons, Grant.  All avenues for originality down that road were exhausted long since.”

Grant gave a faint mocking bow of assent.  “Rose to the rank of Colonel, made the hop from military to government service . . . ”

“Political allegiance?”

“Again, not specified.  He’s held a nice clean upwards course through several administrations, so who can say?  Terribly old school, though – espouses human rights, detests wasting lives, sticks his neck out for his men – ”

“Hard to believe he actually saw service in Vietnam.”

“Served with distinction there, if that isn’t another oxymoron.  Other known and suspected areas of operation include the USSR, several intriguing corners of the Eastern Bloc – the chap gets around, doesn’t he? – North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and its unlovely neighbours, China – now ensconced at the DXS, and quite the golden boy there, by all accounts.”  He raised sardonic eyes to Walsh.  “Best strike whilst the iron is hot.  Looks like he’s due to get kicked upstairs to the far side of a nice wide desk, and you’ll never winkle him out for anything as grotty as mere field work.  Must we deal with the DXS?”

“He’s far and away the best prospect we’ve got.”  Walsh looked tiredly at the stack of discarded dossiers.  Thank God they had finally given her an assistant with the necessary clearance to handle them, or she’d still be doing her own filing.  “Get the rest of this shite cleared up, will you?  Now that we’ve got our man, we have to get him here and in the right frame of mind for a little adventure, and that’s going to take very careful staging.”

“And just how are you going to arrange that?  Call him up and announce that we found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and his name and address were on the handle?  Tell him he’s the long-lost heir of a Flown Earl?”

Walsh smiled cat-like.  “I’ll think of something.”

“It would never occur to you to simply ask them to let us borrow him for a week or ten days.”

“If we do that, I’ll have to tell too many people what’s in hand.  And I’ll owe his bosses a favor.  I don’t really want to be beholden to that lot.”  She handed the stack of discarded folders to Grant.

“Well, if this works, you’ll owe him a favor.”

Walsh shrugged.  “Assuming he doesn’t get his head blown off.  The last DXS boyo we had to deal with was a right eejit.”

“Hardly his fault – his superiors didn’t tell him half of what they knew, and half of that was wrong.”

“He was still as dumb as a post.”

“And now he’s dead as a doornail.”  Grant tucked the folders under his arm.  “They give Darwin a free hand at the DXS.”

Walsh’s feline smile returned, with bitter lines creasing its edge.  “And that’s so very different from here.”

 

 knot


One:  Invitation

 

It’s funny about assumptions – they are the sneakiest things you’ll ever come across.  My Little Brother Reggie can be sneaky when he’s angling for a jump shot, but he’s got nothing on assumptions.  You don’t even notice how they’ve crept up on you until they’ve gotten in front of you and are somehow managing to stare you in the face and block your view at the same time.  It ruins your perspective.

Speaking of Reggie, I’ve got to get him to a hockey game, or he’ll grow up thinking basketball is the be-all and end-all.  I can’t let that happen to my Little Brother; I’d be letting him down.

Once I’m back from my newest assignment, that is.  Which brings me back to the assumptions I hadn’t noticed I was making.

Because everyone knows what terrorists are like.

 

Pete Thornton stopped in the doorway of his own office at DXS headquarters to survey the chaos.  “I should have guessed.”

MacGyver’s head popped up from the far side of where Pete’s desk should have been.  “Hey, Pete!  You’re finally back.  Shoulda guessed what?”

Pete looked around at the office that had been tidy when he’d left it.  Mac’s battered brown leather jacket was tossed over one chair and a pile of books and papers and manila folders was sliding off another, while Pete’s desk had been pushed aside to leave more room around the desk chair.  The big leather chair itself was balanced upside down, wheels pointing at the ceiling, propped up by a side table.  Half the items on Pete’s desk seemed to have toppled in the disturbance.  “I should have guessed that, when Helen told me you were ‘occupying’ my office, she was trying to tell me you’d turned into a one-man army of occupation.”

“Just trying to keep myself occupied till the Deputy Director let you go.  How long ago did the hydraulics on your desk chair start to give out, anyway?”

“Um . . . ”  Pete glanced back over his shoulder at Helen, who shook her head firmly at the silent plea for help and retreated.  “I don’t really remember – I never seem to have time to sit down these days anyway.”

“Yeah, no kidding.  You’re either on assignment or closeted with the D.D.  We were gonna get out to your cabin weeks ago, and you’ve been puttin’ it off.”  MacGyver lifted the chair in one smooth move, turned it right-side up and set it back on its casters, and spun it around with a flourish to face Pete.  “Give it a try.”

Pete sat down cautiously and nodded with satisfaction as the chair held its position under his weight, with no sign of the faint sagging he’d been ignoring for weeks.  He stood up again quickly; Mac was sliding Pete’s desk back into position, and everything on its surface that hadn’t already slid off or fallen over was now swaying.  As he started to put things to rights, Pete spared a moment to wonder which of his office supplies MacGyver might have cannibalized to effect the repairs to the chair, how long it would take him to notice what was gone, and whether Helen, with her usual efficiency, would identify the missing items and provide replacements before he had the time and opportunity to figure it out himself.  Probably – especially with his new assignment already in the works.

“Pete, what the heck is this supposed to mean?”  Pete fielded his own note easily as MacGyver flipped it at him across the desk; Mac had folded it origami-style into a tidy flat triangular packet.

“Look, I’m sorry.  I didn’t have time to leave anything detailed.”

“Details?  I thought you’d taken to leavin’ riddles.”

“It got your attention, anyway.”

Mac suppressed a grin.  He’d found the note when he’d returned from a sea kayaking trip.  But even without it, he’d been planning to check in with Pete and see if anything interesting was developing.  The note read:  Fresh crop of terrorists for you, guaranteed camel-free.  Pack warm clothing for once.  Briefing at 0900, my office.

“So.  No camels, huh?”

“MacGyver, terrorism isn’t limited to desert countries and oil fiefdoms.”  Pete tossed the folded note back to Mac, who caught it one-handed.  “Ever been to Ireland?”

“No.  Isn’t that more in your line?”

“I’m not talking about my family tree.  I’m talking about terrorists.”

“The IRA.”

“Yeah.”  Pete caught a stack of papers before they slid off the desk and straightened the edges neatly.  “Or, at least, the most recent efforts by the British Army Intelligence services to contain them.  Our Director has received a gilt-edged invitation to an inter-organizational symposium they’re hosting in Belfast.  They want representatives from as many counter-terrorism groups as possible to participate, share information, compare notes and techniques – and they’ve asked for me, personally, to attend.”

“Sounds like a good enough idea.”  MacGyver’s voice drifted up from where he was collecting scattered pens from the floor.  “What’s the catch?”

Is there a catch?”

Mac straightened up and gave Pete a searching look. “You tell me.”  He dropped half a dozen pens on the desk.  “You’ve got that look in your eye.  I trust that look.”

“I’ve got that feeling in my gut.”

“Don’t you trust it?”

Pete shrugged and picked up the pens.  “I don’t know. There’s nothing I can put my finger on.”

“I thought things were gettin’ quieter there.  Didn’t they just work out some kind of treaty?”

“You mean the Anglo-Irish Agreement?  They just signed it after months of negotiations, and the only thing anyone agrees on is that everyone hates it.  There’ve been protests, riots, more bombs, more shootings . . . the government’s getting it from all sides.  Some of the sides are splintering into even more factions, and the only thing they hate more than each other is the British.  Northern Ireland has been a war zone for fifteen years, and now they’re afraid it’s going to snowball into a new escalation.”  Pete looked around for his pen holder, couldn’t find it, and dropped the pens into a drawer instead.

“Well, Belfast sounds like a real party town.”  Pete looked up, surprised at the edge in MacGyver’s voice.  “And you’re gonna go there as the special guest of the British Army?  Pete, do you have to accept this invitation?”

“I told you.  They asked for me specifically.”

“Aaand . . . ?”

“And I want you to come too.”

Pete had half expected a protest or an objection, but it didn’t come.  Instead, Mac picked up a paperweight that had miraculously remained in place, turning it over in his long fingers.  “Was I invited?”

“You’d be attached to me as the DXS’ premiere expert in bomb defusing and disposal.  I told the Director I wanted to take you with me for backup, and he agreed.  Then I had to explain to the Deputy Director that you couldn’t be in two places at once and he’d have to find someone else to send to Bangalore.  Unless you’d prefer the climate in Bangalore?”

“In the monsoon season?  I don’t think Ireland has a monsoon season.”

“Just as well – it would probably make the terrorists even harder to catch.”

“Pete.”  Mac set the paperweight down.  “If it’s safe, why take backup?  And if it’s so dangerous, why go?”

“That’s just the problem.”  Pete stooped to retrieve another item from the floor:  the frame holding the photos of his ex-wife and son.  “I don’t know.”

MacGyver’s voice was soft now, without the edge of agitated concern.  “What’s your gut tellin’ you?”

Pete carefully set the photos in their usual place, where he could see them easily on the rare occasions when he had time to look up.  “It’s telling me to go.  And it’s telling me to take you along.”

Mac’s sudden grin held no trace of reserve or anxiety.  “When do we leave?”

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