"I thought M was a randomly assigned letter. I'd no idea it stood for --"
"Utter one more syllable and I'll have you killed."
The young man who broke into her flat that evening was just like all the others: quick-witted, highly skilled, and dedicated to his country. Or, to put it in less flattering terms: reckless, too confident in his own abilities, and willing to use his budding sociopathy for the good of others.
Her work needed men and women like that. She'd hoped for better from this one, though. His class of agent tended to burn out quickly, but some of them -- a few -- turned out to capable of rising above the adrenaline rush of the moment and controlling the larger picture. Those were the ones who became legends. And if the cost of that legendry was high, to themselves and to others . . . .
Christ, she was turning into a maudlin old woman in her dotage.
This one wasn't likely to be a legend anyway. She'd use him while she could, and then when he broke she'd move on, just like she had done with all the others before him.
She learned under the heel of a master.
"With all due respect, M, I don't think you have the balls for this job."
"Perhaps. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them all the time."
Everyone agreed her appointment as the new Chief of Service was quite a coup. What they didn't agree on was why.
"First woman in the job -- you've made history," a fellow from D-Int said, toasting her with cheap champagne. He was young, of course, like all the others who kept cheering her gender as if it were the important thing. What did they know? Half of them called this place "MI6." They didn't remember how bad the rivalry with Five used to be -- still was, sometimes, if you were fool enough to let the wrong people be in a room together.
The older generation, the ones who called SIS by its proper name, remembered. And understood where the real victory lay. "Ten years under the thumb of the diplomats," Fitcher said, when they had a moment away from other ears. "And very few of them a James Greenley. More concerned with politics than the realities of espionage. God, but it's good to have a career intelligence officer back at the helm."
She nodded, scanning the room out of habit. Full of people -- her people, now. "What a pity Lord Wellingham isn't here to see it."
Her new deputy chief frowned. "Why him? He retired years ago. I can't imagine he kept abreast of our inner workings after he left the Foreign Office."
She laughed dryly, and set her champagne aside. It was a surprise the budget had stretched to cover it at all; it certainly hadn't stretched to anything of quality. "That's because you never knew the man. He kept pulling strings right up to his death, even concerning things he shouldn't have known about. Some of those strings were attached to me." He used her gender as a lever, she was sure, but that was never his real motivation. No, he understood how many of those diplomats saw intelligence work as a game of Cowboys and Indians -- and, under their sober exteriors, were eager to play. "Licence to kill," indeed. She'd like to kill the man who thought that phrase up.
"You can't expect me to believe he orchestrated your appointment from beyond the grave," Fitcher said.
"Of course not," she replied. Before he could he nod in satisfaction, she went on. "He orchestrated it before he ever died. Laid the groundwork, at least, and it's paying off now."
His look was incredulous. "But why? Not that you're a bad choice, but --"
"He knew the government was preparing to acknowledge our existence," she said. Foreign powers had known it for decades, but the British public hadn't -- not officially. "There's more scrutiny now, more pressure to look respectable for civilians who have no idea what intelligence work requires."
"A new face for a new era."
"Something like that." Her face wasn't so new as all that. But she could be ruthless without the appearance of it, and at the same time, sidestep the chimpanzee contests of dominance that had so occupied her most recent predecessor. That would an asset to SIS. The government had gambled on her -- a career intelligence officer, not a diplomat; and, yes, a woman -- and she intended to be a Chief of Service worthy of remembrance.
"And the Sandbaggers?"
"A special operations section."
"Sir, if the name bothers you, I can soon change it."
"It's what you do with it that bothers me!"
"You wrote a paper in support of this?"
"I recommended it to the deputy chief in the first place." She leaned back in her chair and studied her station number two. Carson was in such a lather, you would have thought East Germany was about to invade.
He dropped the signal on her desk and said, "But -- you were a Sandbagger."
"So?" She picked up the folder and flipped it open, skimming; the contents came as no surprise. By order of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office, and the Chief of Service for SIS, the Special Operations Section was to be disbanded. In short: no more Sandbaggers.
Carson was still staring. She closed the folder and sighed. "You think I'm disloyal? I'm realistic. The Special Section has been a target for the politicians since the day it was formed. It costs too much money -- not in pay, God knows, but last-minute plane tickets to the other side of the world, that sort of thing -- and half of Westminster would rather not think about what the Operations Directorate does in the first place. Let alone the kinds of emergency measures Sandbaggers have been known to take. They've been looking for ways to shorten its leash for ages, and sometimes they've succeeded.
"Did you know there used to be three Sandbaggers?" Carson shook his head mutely. "There was a 'temporary' manning standard imposed years ago, capping that at two, and it stayed in place for so long, it became permanent." She gestured at the closed folder. "We decided not to wait for them to try that again. It would be hard luck on Benedict, being told he has to plug the holes in the dikes all by himself."
"But --" Carson shook his head, hard enough to disarrange his hair. "Now we'll have no one to plug the holes at all."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "Come, now. Do you really think we'd let that happen?"
His hand paused in the act of smoothing his hair down again. "You have a plan." Then he rolled his eyes. "Of course you have a plan. But what is it?"
"A new designation." With any luck, that folder would already be in Carson's in-tray, a few layers deeper than the one now on her desk. He should learn to finish sorting before he came running to her in a panic over a routine signal. "They'll be field agents, but with more flexibility, not assigned to any one station. Easier to bury them --" She caught his appalled look and laughed. "In the administrative sense. A section, now that's easy to notice -- but who pays attention to our classification system for agents?"
Carson finally sank down into the chair in front of her desk. "Based out of London?"
"Theoretically. But we'll likely be selecting more rootless sorts. If they're scattered around the world, we'll be able to get them to where they're needed more quickly."
Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "The heads of station will love that."
Her peers, unlike the men in Westminster, did pay attention to agent designations. They would notice that these were very nearly Sandbaggers by another name. And the old tension would still be there. Still -- "If the head of Bonn station doesn't mind, why should they?" She gestured at herself, expression saintly.
"Because you used to be a Sandbagger," Carson said dryly. Then a curious gleam entered his eye. "You won't be able to call them that any longer, of course. What will the designation be?"
"Numbers," she said. "Lovely, neutral numbers, that no one could possibly be alarmed by. We'll call them double-0's."
"In the old days, if an agent did something that embarrassing, he'd have the good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War."
Paul saw her coming, of course. Twitchy as he was, she would have been terribly disappointed if he hadn't. Nothing was going to redeem this moment, but she wanted to believe he hadn't lost everything.
He could have tried to run. He had a good six inches on her in height; he would have gotten away. But only in the short term, and they both knew it. If she'd tracked him here, she could track him anywhere.
Some perverse part of her still wanted to offer sympathy. Stopping just out of reach, with the train station bustling about its business behind her, she said, "You led me a good chase."
His mouth twisted. "I suppose I should be honoured. Sandbagger Two, here to collect me herself."
"Vienna station are busy distracting your KGB friend," she said. "Paul -- what the hell are you doing?"
"I should have thought that was obvious."
She controlled her temper. "I mean why."
He hadn't given up entirely, not yet, though his shoulders slumped in real-looking despair. "After what happened in Berlin? The Foreign Office has to cover for that somehow. And they'd rather say I was the tool of the KGB than admit their own foul-up."
She wanted to press the heel of her hand to her forehead, but didn't dare relax that far. "They haven't hanged anybody since 1964. And do you think D-Ops would stake you out for the wolves, just because you made a mistake?"
A mistake fell far short of describing the situation in Berlin, but Paul brightened all the same. "You mean -- if I come back with you --"
"Of course," she said. And saw, with bitterness, that Paul -- who should have smelled the lie a mile off -- believed her.
D-Ops wouldn't abandon him just because he made a mistake. But trying to defect to the Soviet Union? It couldn't have all been his panic talking; someone from the KGB must have gotten to him. Likely in Berlin, before he ever ran. They would get the name from Paul, when they questioned him back in Britain; she made a mental note to ask about that later. Whoever it was must have been damned convincing, and would be worth watching out for in future.
"Come on," she said. "Vienna's head of station is tired of having a Sandbagger looking over his shoulder. I have two plane tickets back to London; let's leave the man in peace."
And Paul, sighing with relief, followed her like a lamb to the slaughter.
"I've had a thought; just came to investigate. She might suit you. She was fired once, from Peele's outer office."
"Failed to water his plants?"
"Insufficiently ingratiating, I believe."
She let the door fall closed behind her and let out the breath she'd been holding. She noted, with almost clinical detachment, that her hands were shaking. Well, it could have been worse; after all, she hadn't been fired.
But she'd chosen her moment wrong. She'd allowed Burnside to get under her skin over this business with Malta, and let that provoke her into moving . . . no, not too early. The longer she stayed a secretary, the harder it would be for Burnside to see her anywhere else. But moving at the wrong time, yes. And saying the wrong thing. Cataclysmic honesty was a tool -- one he often used to great effect -- but only on certain topics. His utter lack of acknowledgment for what she'd said proclaimed that very clearly.
Well, a battle was not a war. She could still enter the field school, with or without his approval. And perhaps by the time she finished there, Neil Burnside would no longer be Director of Operations. Things changed, after all, sometimes very quickly.
Marianne Straker had both ambition and patience. She would wait, and choose her next moment better. She intended to rise high in SIS, before she was done.