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On a Short Leash

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Not for the first time, Willie reminded himself he should feel thankful the powers that be had decided he was worth keeping. He could have just been out of a job. Still, for a man who had been used to getting round on his own two feet, who had, at one stage in his career, been known to jump out of airplanes (and climb over walls), needing the assistance of the doorman to negotiate his way in the building was somewhat galling.

“Morning, Mary,” he said, as he manoeuvred his wheelchair through the outer office and into the inner sanctum of the office of D.Int. The grey walls were decorated with faded and rather dusty posters of Greece and Turkey, legacy from some previous D.Int. Like his immediate predecessor, he too had not bothered to replace them. He still hadn’t quite figured out how he’d been appointed. He’d never had much time for the intelligence side of the business, believing that – even more than Ops – was the purview of the striped tie brigade.

“Coffee?”

“Definitely.” He relied on it strong and black to get him started each day. Mary, who had been with SIS for many years, and seen several D.Int.s come and go, knew to have it ready and waiting.

“There’s a communiqué marked immediate from Cairo Station on the top.”

Another sign of an experienced PA: one who could sort through the messages and prioritise. Many’s the time he’d sat down in the hutch (before his injuries) cursing the boredom of sifting through seemingly endless trivia, genning up on this country’s military structures or that nation’s shifting economic alliances, puzzling to make sense of patterns which inevitably escaped his brain. Mike had always been better at it than he; but he was now Sandbagger One. And, as D.Int it was all done for Willie now.

Given Mary had seen four D.Ints through office (albeit Dalgetty had only been there a few months, Tyler, before him, had lasted several years, as had the previous D.Int), Willie sometimes wondered if D.Int was merely a titular title, with the real decision-making being made in the outer office, rather than inner. When he’d voiced his inner reservations along these lines to C, he’d been reminded, his job was one of policy now, rather than field work, and pointed toward a course about management skills. (He knew he should have known better than to expect sympathy from Gibbs.)

Willie opened the folder on top, glanced at it briefly, cursed, and reached for the phone.

“D.Int here; may I come up, Sir?”

* * * * *

 

“I need hardly remind you that this issue was raised under your predecessor’s time as D.Ops, and the answer was unequivocally ‘no’.” Gibbs voice was measured and emotionless. “I hardly think it likely the response will be any different now.”

“But, Sir, surely this time it will be different. I mean they cannot dismiss this as an isolated incident – not when 20 people died – not when it’s resulted in the loss of a man as useful as Robert Banks.”

Willie remembered Banks from that mission in Prague: brilliant, idealistic and hopelessly naive, but nonetheless very useful to the Government. He’d salvaged him last year, only for the man to be murdered by that maniac Lutara this year. What a waste!

Just as this was a waste. Not that he disagreed with Dalgetty. For once he thought the man was completely right. Lutara needed to be stopped; and it was high time the British Government did something about him. Caine only wished he could be the Sandbagger tasked with the job. But regardless of how strongly he wanted it, wanted some kind of justice for the dead colleague Lutara had murdered years ago, he could see Dalgetty was wasting his time arguing with Gibbs. No brief would be forwarded to Whitehall recommending the mission. Lutara would not be touched. Not for the first time Willie wondered what the point was of gathering all this intelligence if nothing was ever done about it.

While he’d been musing, C had steered the conversation into more productive channels.

“So Sandbagger One’s assessment is that the man could be very useful, if not essential.”

“Effectively, yes,” concurred Peele, “but, there’s the problem of direct lifting, given the delicacy of the situation on the Yugoslav-Albanian border – particularly given the tensions since Tito’s death.

“Yes, I can see the difficulty. It wouldn’t take much to set off Hoxha’s paranoia. We must proceed most carefully.”

“Fortunately, it appears the man has practically found his own way out, as he is due to accompany a trade delegation to Malta next week,” said Dalgetty. “I am proposing to task Len Sheppard with the job of seeing him safe on a plane to London.”

“Not Sandbagger One?”

“It should be well within a Station Head’s abilities to organise transport,” Dalgetty explained.

“Perhaps,” conceded C, “but given Wallace’s assessment of the importance of this particular individual, and the rising instability in the Balkans, which are likely to absorb ever more of our attention in the coming months, it would seem to me you may be underestimating the need to send a Sandbagger.”

“I was considering the budget implications, Sir,” explained Dalgetty.

“And I am always pleased when my Directors are mindful of costs; but in this instance I think the money would be well-spent. One needs to remember that if one never uses the resources to hand, one may well find oneself without them in the next budget allocation,” said Gibbs, “with disastrous results when one needs them at a later date. If the man really is essential...”

Gibbs turned to Caine. “As Director of Intelligence, do you concur with Wallace’s assessment of the potential importance of this defector?”

“Absolutely,” said Willie.

“Then that’s decided,” said C. “Sandbagger One to fly from Belgrade to Malta, and lift Ivanic.”

* * * * *

 

“So how’s it going in those lofty heights of management? Any closer to adjusting, yet?” Jeff asked just before he bit into his Big Mac.

To himself, he reflected how, in happier days, he and Neil would have wandered through St James’ park for lunch, possibly (if they were lucky), finding a bench overlooking the lake. However, since those SALT talks in Malta, Neil had disappeared from the landscape of London intelligence circles; and a lunch-hour stroll was beyond Willie, so they were holed up here, in D.Int.’s office. The food remained much the same, though. There must something about SIS that made its operatives opt for fast food over fine dining. At least the company in this office was more conducive to the digestive processes. He’d stop in at Dalgetty’s room before he went back to the US Embassy, of course. It would never do to antagonise the man. But the Special Relationship had never seemed less special to him before Dalgetty took over Neil’s role. He still thought of it as ‘Neil’s’ somehow, even though it had been several months since the reshuffle.

“It’s a job,” replied Willie.

“And the lovely Marianne?” Jeff enquired. “How’s she doing down in field school? Any news when she’s likely to be ready?”

“I wouldn’t know about that, these days,” said Willie. “You’ll have to ask Dalgetty. Last I heard, her Spanish was pretty good, though.”

“Oh, great – she can join Neil over in Madrid, then. That’ll warm the cockles of his soul.”

“That’s if he’s there....”

“There?”

A long pause ensued while Willie ripped open a packet of vinegar, poured it on his fries, and ate a couple. He made a sound of disgust. “No matter how many times I eat this muck, it just doesn’t get any better.”

“Well you chose lunch; I just played errand boy,” retorted Jeff.

“You didn’t have to go to McDonalds, you know. There are other burger joints.”

“You say that to an American?”

There was another pause, before Jeff tried again.

“Come on Willie – give! What did you mean by that crack about Neil?”

Willie shoved a thin blue folder across to the corner of the desk near Ross. “Take a look.”

Jeff’s movements were slow and easy, as he pulled the file onto his crossed legs to peruse. His eyebrows rose, before he looked Willie straight in the eyes. “What’s he playing at this time?!”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Caine, “but I can tell you one thing: Lutara’s been at it again.”

“Do they know upstairs?”

“About Lutara – yes; about Burnside - as I said before, your guess is as good as mine.”

* * * * *

 

“Coffee?” Peele asked, turning back from the trolley to look at Caine as he seated himself before the Deputy’s desk.

“Yes, thanks,” said Willie.

“And you Paul?” he asked, as Dalgetty came into the room a few seconds behind Willie.

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Sandbagger One back yet?”

“Not yet,” replied Dalgetty.

“There’s not a problem, is there?” asked Peele, as he handed across the milk and sugar. Willie added two lumps; he rather thought he might need the extra if this meeting went on very long.

“Just a slight delay,” said Dalgetty, “I had him stay on a few extra days because of Princess Anne’s visit. He’s to coordinate security.

“He’ll love that,” remarked Willie, rolling his eyes.

“What he loves, or doesn’t love, is neither here nor there, as you well know,” admonished Peele. “Wallace is a Sandbagger and does as he is bid.”

“Ours not to reason why – ours but to do or die, and all that - I know, but it’s bloody boring work, just the same, and hardly the proper task for a Sandbagger.”

“The proper task for Sandbagger is whatever job his D.Ops. gives him; I would have thought you’d remember that from your own days in Special Section. And anyway, it’s ‘Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die’,” Peele reminded.

Willie stifled a sigh.

“Apparently he ran into Burnside the other day, renting a boat,” said Dalgetty.

“Oh?”

“Yes, with a lady friend in tow,” added Dalgetty. “Wallace said she’s a more mature lady – perhaps slightly older than him, but nonetheless quite good looking.”

“Indeed – well, well,” remarked Peele. “First the man goes on holiday – without having to be prodded into it – you could take a leaf out of his book, you know, Willie–” Peele looked darkly at the D.Int who hadn’t taken a day off since his appointment, “– now he has a love interest. I do hope he’s reported her for security vetting.”

“I checked,” said Dalgetty, “he’s filled in the forms and they’re in process. Wallace says she speaks fluent Spanish and French.”

“How far-sighted of Neil.” Peele smiled. “Let’s hope something permanent comes of it; a wife can be so useful for a Station Chief.”

“Apparently, they’re taking several days sailing round the coast of Malta together,” said Dalgetty.

“I never realised Neil liked to sail,” mused Peele.

“He was in the Royal Marines before he joined the Special Section,” Willie put in. “Perhaps he learned there.”

“Ah, yes, the Marines. I was in Horse Guards myself. It’s a good sign, I suppose, that he’s developing his hobbies.”

* * * * *

 

Willie shrugged off his raincoat, kicked off his shoes, and let his briefcase slip with a thud to the floor, before crossing his living room to the phone, dialling, and speaking briefly into it, “D.Int at home.”

He’d just pulled a pizza from his freezer and put it into the oven, before the intercom sounded.

“Willie – it’s Jeff; can I come up?”

He’d half been expecting this, and buzzed him in.

“What the fuck does he think he’s doing!” came the exclamation from Ross as soon as he walked through the front door to Caine’s flat.

“And a ‘good evening’ to you too,” came Willie’s sardonic reply.

“Oh, right – sorry. Hello, and all that. You know how much I love you guys; but come off it Willie, what is he doing out there!

“I should have thought by now that was obvious.”

“As if what he did in Malta a few months ago wasn’t bad enough. Is he trying to commit suicide?”

“Now that you ask me, I shouldn’t have thought it was himself he was trying to kill, no.”

Professional suicide I mean. Come on Willie – you know what I mean!”

Willie just shook his head and sighed. “He’s got the bit between his teeth; and you know when the Boss is like that, there’s really nothing anyone else can say or do to stop him.”

“Except he’s not the boss any longer – Dalgetty is.”

“Dalgetty couldn’t boss his way out of a toilet without major help; you know it and I know it.”

“And if Neil pulls this one off so will C and Peele know it. Is that what this is about? Getting his old job back?” asked Ross.

“Nope. He’s just taking advantage of being out there to do what he’s always thought needed to be done.

“And getting a bit of his own back to boot, I should imagine.”

Willie just shrugged.

“And the woman he’s got in tow – who’s she?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she were the one who has him in tow,” remarked Caine. “I met her last year, and she’s pretty impressive. Irene Banks, daughter of a general, and now a widow, courtesy of Lutara’s latest atrocity.”

The intercom buzzer sounded, jarring and loud, in the silence which fell after that piece of information. Willie could see Ross struggling to encompass the concept of Burnside as sidekick to a female associate.

“You expecting someone else?”

“That’ll be Mike,” said Willie. “He’s due back tonight, and said he’d come round as soon as he got in.”

As usual, even tired from a long flight, Mike looked neat as a pin in trench coat and black leather gloves. He sat, staring at his hands, without saying a word.

“Well?” asked Ross of Mike, leaning forward in his chair, as he stared at the younger man. “Take off your coat, stay a while... and tell us all about it.” His drawl was more pronounced than usual.

Mike looked up, met the older man’s eyes briefly, before he looked to Willie. “He knows?”

“Of course he knows – he knows Neil Burnside!”

“On form, as usual, is he?” Ross quipped.

“It’s another of those damned unofficial missions – he isn’t even D.Ops any longer and I’m still doing his dirty work for him!”

“Down boy,” said Caine. “You know the way it goes.”

“Yes - Burnside says jump and we all say ‘how high’!”

“All you did was hand over some equipment for the man’s sailing trip.”

“Rope and a knife.”

“What’s wrong with that? Boats use rope – you know that; I know that. And knives come in handy for gutting fish.”

“Yes but... Burnside fishing? What fool would believe that?”

“Depends what fish he plans to gut,” said Jeff quietly.

* * * * *

 

The last couple of days had been pretty quiet. Today, bold headlines outside the newsagents proclaimed the kidnapping of President Lutara of East Africa by local insurgents. No sooner had he arrived in the building than Willie found himself summoned to C’s office.

“Apparently there’s some film footage that was dropped off at the US embassy in Cairo,” said C, “showing the man tied to an anthill with his belly cut open.”

“Pretty gruesome stuff, I should imagine,” commented Peele, “quite disgusting what these Third World types can get up to – most uncivilised.”

“Indeed, yet strange that insurgents would shoot a film record and not release it more widely,” remarked C. “There doesn’t seem to be another copy of the film in existence. It is odd that the one and only copy is provided to the Americans.”

“Lutara’s opponents have undoubtedly miscalculated, there,” suggested Peele.

“Did they? I wonder,” said Gibbs.

“Definitely,” Peele asserted, “America is not a nation likely to approve of such abhorrent methods of execution. The new East African government is likely to find itself on the receiving end of considerable distrust from the international community as a result of this atrocity.”

“Yet, the international community, for the most part, knows nothing of what really happened. We should not have even known of the film’s existence were it not for the Special Relationship we have with the US.”

“What are you suggesting, Sir?” asked Dalgetty.

“Suggesting? I don’t know that I am suggesting anything,” Gibbs said, but his eyes glittered venomously as he spoke, and he looked pointedly at Caine as he asked. “I don’t suppose your intelligence sources can shed any light on which faction was responsible for this assassination?”

“It could have been any one of half a dozen splinter groups; God knows Lutara’s made enough enemies over the years,” Caine replied.

“Indeed.” Gibbs’ clipped tones could not have been more frosty; but, to Willie’s relief, he quietly moved on to a new topic.

* * * * *

 

Caine wasn’t expecting a summons from above; but once again, he had just arrived at his desk on Monday morning, when the phone rang and he was ordered to report to C.

“I hear Mr Burnside is now back from his holiday,” said C. “I trust he found his voyage worthwhile.”

“I believe he did, Sir,” said Willie, outwardly calm, though inside he felt jittery as a mouse in a trap.

“Mr Dalgetty will be taking a little trip himself, in the next few days,” said Gibbs.

“Will he, Sir?” asked Caine, momentarily puzzled that C was discussing D.Ops. with him.

“Yes, he’s been reassigned to Hong Kong Station, and will be travelling there by the end of the week. It’s one of a number of changes I’m planning to make,” said Gibbs.

“May I ask who will be his replacement?” asked Caine.

“You,” said Gibbs.

“Me?” Caine was astonished.

“Do you not want the post?” asked C. “I thought you found the Intelligence side of SIS less to your liking, and would appreciate the swap.”

“Well, yes... I am just a little surprised,” said Willie.

“Mr Burnside will be returning from Madrid within the month to take up your old role as Intelligence Director.”

Willie’s eyebrows rose. Neil Burnside back in London, but not back in his old job – what was Gibbs up to?

“Not Operations Director?” Caine clarified.

“I think he’s been quite active enough the last few weeks, even without the resources available to him as D.Ops., don’t you? Perhaps you did not realise: years ago I knew Bob Judd,” Gibbs returned coolly. “Mr Burnside can practice his sailing on the Thames in the future – on a short leash.”