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A Dirty Game

Chapter Text

*Cue music*
ggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The

“I’m alive and five have died.”
“Oh, it’s guilt, is that what it is? Because they’re gone and you’re left?”
“It’s logic. My number’s going to be coming up, too.”
– Willie Caine and Neil Burnside, Episode “Enough of Ghosts”

“Anyway, we’ve been together for six years.”
“An old married couple.”
“I think we’ve been through a lot more together than any married couple.”
– Willie Caine and Neil Burnsides, Episode “Opposite Numbers”

The airport terminal was crowded with casual travelers and businessmen in pressed, stuffy suits alike. Neil Burnside clutched the handle of his leather satchel in one hand and reached inside his coat for his wallet and ID with the other. He was waved through by the girl in a navy skirt suit and paused to allow a family with a bundle of knee-high children in tow to hurry down the hallway toward the lift. Rain beat on the large square windows set into the walls, showing dismal overcast skies and torrential rain, a stark contrast to the sunny, cloudless skies of Malta Burnside had only hours before left.

“Can I have your attention, please?” The PA system crackled to life in a burst of muffled static, hardly audible over the crush of travelers’ harried voices. “Will Mr. Neil Burnside – Mr. Neil Burnside, passenger traveling Air Malta – will Mr. Neil Burnside please contact the information point near Chauffer Services? Will Mr. Neil Burnside please contact the information point near Chauffer Services?”

Burnside smothered a frustrated sigh. What in the blazes could they want with him now? It was probably Willie checking in, or worse – Gibbs or Peele calling with more remonstrations. He couldn’t understand why they couldn’t bloody wait until he was back at the office. They, of course, knew that was where he’d be headed as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Frowning, Burnside shifted his satchel to the other hand and turned on his heel, weaving through the crowd toward the arrivals lounge. He approached the information desk in the corner and frowned at the man in the black suit and bowler, feeling his forehead crease as he raised his eyebrows.

“Burnside,” said C with a taught nod, hooked handle of his umbrella hanging on his wrist.

“Sir,” Burnside inclined his head. He’d been expecting a phone call, not the chief of SIS. Word of his activities in Malta must have traveled fast. Burnside had had almost three hours to think it over on the plane. There was no way, he’d decided, that he’d get off with no more than the slap on the wrist from Peele.

“I have a car waiting outside, Burnside.”

“Have I permission to collect my luggage?”

For a moment it looked very much like Gibbs was going to roll his eyes. Burnside wondered if he had had just as trying a day back home as had Burnside in Malta.

Burnside gathered his case and followed Gibbs through the terminal and to the car parked on the curb outside in almost near, frosty silence. Rain dripped off the awning above the door, collecting in puddles in the cracks in the sidewalk. Pedestrians hurried across the road carrying black umbrellas and suitcases.

Burnside’s luggage was stowed in the boot. The back door was opened. Burnside slid into the seat after Gibbs. Burnside folded his hands between his long legs and Gibbs neatly took his bowler off his head and clasped it in his lap. He cleared his throat, finally preparing to begin.

“I expect this will come as something as a shock, Burnside –”

“That Filatov’s been apprehended by the Russians and Peele’s called to tell you all about it?”

Gibbs stared straight ahead. Burnside could see his hard, pale face reflected in the partition between them and the driver, already firmly shut when he had got in.

“The SIS does not take kindly to being wrapped around your finger, Burnside. I thought you’d learned that before. Peele has spoken to me about your exploits in Malta, but I’m afraid that will have to wait. I have some rather troubling news.”

Burnside looked at C, his profile illuminated by the milky gray light sliding through the rain-striped window.

“What’s happened, sir?”

“Moments after your departure there was an assassination attempt on Filatov – by the Russians.”

“On Filatov?” Burnside cursed quietly. “Of course, by hitting him instead of their chief negotiator and still pinning it on us they’d have given themselves the same excuse to pull out of the conference and covered up the sticky business of his defection in one fell swoop. Willie must be kicking himself. I should have seen it sooner.”

“Yes.” C continued to stare straight ahead. “We tried to get word to you but your plane had already left.”

“What happened?” Burnside leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees, feeling his blood pounding in his brain as it always did when the hunt was up. He was vaguely irritated at Gibbs’ apparent refusal to meet his gaze. “You said he wasn’t killed?”

“No, he wasn’t – Sandbagger One took the bullet for him.”

For a moment there was silence, filled only by the steady thump and swish of the windshield wipers, the splash of the tires through puddles as the car slid to a stop in front of a light, and the pin-prick beatings of the rain upon the windows and the title “Sandbagger One” refused to connect itself to the name “William Caine” nor the living, breathing counterpart Burnside had left wearing sunglasses in Malta barely three hours ago named Willie.

“What do you mean?” Burnside’s lips hardly moved but his voice was somehow perfectly clear, hitting the closed glass windows and rebounding in his skull.

“Both Sandbaggers followed the Russian delegates – I can only assume on your orders. According to Sandbagger Two, Caine noticed Filatov in the front car, derived the Russians’ plans, spotted the sniper atop a building and managed to jump in front of the bullet just as Filatov was stepping out of the car. All in a matter of seconds. Remarkable feat – he certainly managed to prevent an already disastrous situation from getting any worse –”

“Is he alright?” Burnside’s heart was pumping rapidly in his throat in a familiar, exhilarating panic but he swallowed it down with well-practiced self-discipline. There was no reason to panic, not when all the cards had yet to be shown.

“He was taken to the hospital. Bullet severed the spinal cord. DOA, I believe.”

The letters echoed vacantly in Burnside’s head and he struggled to prescribe any kind of meaning to them.

“I am sorry, Burnside.” C’s voice was gruff, his eyes still trained straight ahead. “Caine was a good man. I understand you’d been in the service together for some time. He’ll be sorely missed.”

Willie Caine. Dead. It refused to become a concept within Burnside’s mind. Only three hours ago – only three hours – Burnside had left Willie and Mike – he had left them and Willie had been alive and well and – only three hours –

He struggled to press through the confusion of disbelief, rushing thoughts, sounds, sights, and memories, struggled to focus, struggled to wrap his mind around it, struggled to erase the violent images that had leapt to mind, the striking, cruel, breath-stopping notion that Willie – Willie, smiling – Willie, leaning against the office door – Willie, elbows braced on a desk – Willie, calculating, casual – Willie, laughing – Willie, dead –

“He – did he suffer?” He was suddenly unable to erase from his mind the image of Tom Eliot crumpled on the floor in the middle of a shabby flat.

“According to Sandbagger Two, he fell unconscious almost immediately.”

“And Sandbagger Two –” Mike – Sandbagger Two – Willie – Sandbagger One – Willie, dead – Sandbagger One took the bullet for him. “Sandbagger Two was uninjured?”

“Yes, perfectly unharmed. I have ordered his immediate withdraw from the island, of course. He should be arriving later today.”

“And the – gunman has been apprehended?”

“No, not yet. You understand that it was quite chaotic afterwards. The Soviets were certainly not expecting anyone to interfere. And, of course, the only available officers were Soviets themselves and you can imagine they were not very keen to mount a search for their own man –”

“Yes, of course,” Burnside murmured. Pieces were beginning to click into place, questions nagging at the back of his mind. “How have the Soviets responded? They can hardly insist it was SIS if one of our own men was –” killed, Burnside hesitated merely a fraction of a second, “– killed trying to stop the attempt, neither will they be willing to reveal their own conspiracy.”

“No word. The facts are hazy, whether simply because of the ensuing chaos or if the Russians’ intentionally blurring. Everyone, besides us or anyone else who’s guessed it – your friend in the CIA, for instance, only think that a low-ranking British official has been killed in an accident. A bogged assassination attempt has barely been suggested.”

C’s voice droned like a badly tuned radio somewhere in the back of Burnside’s head. He struggled to comprehend it all, struggled to form some cognitive hypothesis, some strategy –

“Then the Russians – they haven’t pulled out of the talks?”

“No, they haven’t any excuse anymore, and they certainly seem to be putting forth their best efforts that it stays that way.”

Burnside waded through the mental excess, tried to push aside the thumping of his heart, struggled to push passed the blinding image of the glint of Willie’s sunglasses in the Malta sunshine, left only three hours ago to be replaced by the pouring London rain, this empty, aching feeling in Burnside’s chest, the inability to take it all in. Burnside struggled to remember what else had been at stake, to what aims Willie had died for, what it all meant, but for some reason all he could think of was how much Willie disliked guns.

“Has his mother been told?”

Gibbs hesitated, not at all a common thing. “No. No, not yet. She’s in Salisbury, isn’t she? We’ll have to send a man. It’s just her at home, no father?”

“You’ve read his file,” Burnside snapped.

“Any other relatives? Brothers or sisters?”

“No, he’s an only child,” it was strange, how stubbornly he clung to the present tense. Outside the buildings on the side of the street were rushing passed in a blur of gray rain.

“I hesitate to ask you this, Burnside, but you did know Caine best. Perhaps you would acquiesce to bearing the news – you could take the car after it dropped me at Collingstone. You needn’t go alone, if you’d like me to send for someone –”

“It’ll be nearly two hours to Salisbury, sir. I’ve lost enough time as it is. Besides, that isn’t part of my job. Certainly I’ll go see her after….” After what? After the initial shock had worn off, after she no longer presented any danger of weeping or fainting into Burnside’s arms, after the anger and blame stopped burning in her eyes, after Burnside, himself, erased Willie’s face from his mind –

It added the tally to five under his watch, now. Jack Landy, Alan Denson, Tom Eliot, and Laura Dickens, and there had been Robert Judd before any of them. And then there had been Denson’s girl. Sally Graham. Of course he remembered her name. He remembered all their names. He remembered the way she had looked, too, curled up on the blue and yellow checked coverlet, very small and very young, with a pale, peaceful face. Just another face to add to his nightmares. Like Willie’s face now….

“You really needn’t worry about coming into the office, Burnside. You’ve had a difficult few days, culminating in a nasty shock. Perhaps the car could drop you at your flat?”

At his empty, gaping flat with the echoing rooms and vacant, static air, ripe for the haunting of a hundred ghosts, “No. Thank you, sir, but I’ll need to be there to clean up the pieces.”

“I must insist, Burnside –”

“Is that an order, sir?”

“No,” Gibbs said coldly. “No, it isn’t.”

Burnside looked away, staring straight ahead. His reflection in the patrician was wavering and transparent, face pale and drawn but perfectly unmoved. He looked down at his lap, his long folded fingers, unbearable as it was to even meet his own eye.

It was all so seamlessly useless. Had Burnside still been present in Malta he would have told Willie to leave Filatov, let the Russians pull out of SALT under their own terms, let them get the upper hand for – but would he? Would Burnside have told Willie to drop it? Would he have told Willie to let Filatov take the bullet, to let SIS take the blame?

If only the Soviets had pulled out of SALT, there would have been some purpose to it all –Is that your epitaph for Willie Caine? The voice sliced through Burnside’s mind like a knife and he focused on breathing slowly, trying to quiet the pattering of his heart, refusing to allow his face to betray himself in the company of Gibbs.

“I don’t want Sandbagger Two withdrawn,” Burnside finally spoke. “He can do more good in Malta straightening things out than he can do here.”

“I’m afraid he’s already departed by now. I had him put on the twelve o’clock flight.”

“Well then you’ll simply have to turn him around again.”

“It’s not your place to tell me what I can or cannot do,” said Gibbs sharply. He finally turned his head to address Burnside, eyes steely. “I was prepared to give you some allowance allotting to the shock, but I must tell you frankly now, Burnside, that I’d rather not have any Sandbaggers left anywhere near SALT, at least not while they still answer to you.”

Burnside turned his head to stare out the window, at the rain weeping down the glass and the puddles rippling on the curb. They were approaching the Thames by now. He watched a woman, holding a child by the hand, and a black umbrella in the other hurry into a storefront before the car sped onward and they were lost somewhere behind them.

“Yes, sir.”

He could feel the sand slipping through his fingers, feel his influence melting from his grasp, spiraling out of control as it had in Malta when Peele had walked in on the heels of Sarkisyan, when the French had asked for the Special Relationship, when Laura Dickens had sprawled across the wet East Berlin pavement, and somehow, somehow, Burnside was still left to have to live with it all.

It occurred to Burnside while walking through the hallways and being on the receiving end of sympathetic looks, nods, and comments, that he was the only one in the building who had known of Willie’s death for less than an hour.

There seemed to be an unusual amount of people in the hallways, no doubt exchanging gossip and attempting to draw some kind of comfort from each other’s company. Willie had been well-known in the building, beyond just the special section, which was why his death seemed to be creating more of a stir than either Denson’s or Eliot’s had, but Burnside considered each “sorry to hear the news, Burnside,” to be more of a nuisance than any real comfort.

He shoved the door to his outer office open with his shoulder. Marianne Straker was sitting behind her desk with her head braced on her palms and, my God, Burnside hoped she wasn’t crying. He didn’t want to deal with any sobbing, hysterical girl.

She looked up sharply as he entered, arms falling to her side, face pale, voice soft, “Sir.”

“You’re to hold any calls that don’t come from within this building. Even Ross – especially Ross,” said Burnside curtly, walking toward his office, trying to avoid looking at her.

“Sir,” she said again, voice brittle but eyes, at least, mercifully dry. “Is it true?”

Burnside stopped and turned to face her. “Of course it’s true,” he snapped.

She continued as though she hadn’t heard him, voice faint. “It’s been going through the building like wildfire but no one’s been in to confirm it. I suppose – I supposed you would know for certain.”

“I’ve only just heard it myself, Miss Straker.”

“It was – silly to hope anything to the contrary, I suppose.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it was.”

“But –” her voice took on a stifled, breathy quality that was dangerously close to tears. “It’s so difficult to comprehend it. Willie Caine –”

“I suggest you get used to it, Miss Straker. Life is cheap in this day and age, and lately is seems a Sandbagger’s is even more so.”

She flinched as though he had slapped her. He couldn’t bear to look at her any longer so he turned on his heel and pushed his way into his office, closing the door sharply behind him, and the silence that was there to welcome him beat heavily upon his ears.

He reached into his breast pocket to grasp his lighter and pack of cigarettes. He fumblingly pulled out a cigarette and flicked the lighter but it didn’t light. He flicked it again but it must have been out of fluid. Fingers trembling harder, he hastily marched over to his desk and yanked open the top drawer. He shuffled through the collection of paper clips, notepads, and staplers, searching for a pack of matches or a spare lighter.

He couldn’t find any so he yanked open another drawer, ruffling through a stack of stale forms and forgotten paperwork. He grabbed a fistful and shoved it on the desk and out of the way. The red light on the intercom flashed to life with a beep. Burnside distractedly pushed down the button with one finger, his other hand dislodging a heap of documents in a third drawer, unlit cigarette clenched in his teeth.

“Yes, what is it?”

“D-Int. to see you, sir.”

“Send him in.” Burnside stabbed the button aggressively to turn off the intercom and was shuffling through another drawer when Paul Dalgetty stepped through the door.


“Paul,” said Burnside, not bothering to look up. He cursed and slammed shut the drawer he’d been pawing through.

“I heard about Willie, Neil. I’m sorry.”

“Yes, well, so am I,” said Burnside, pulling open another drawer with such force it almost pulled off its track. “You don’t happen to have a bloody light on you, do you?”

“Certainly,” Paul stepped calmly forward, reaching into his breast pocket to pull out a silver lighter. He clicked it once and a flame leapt to life. Burnside pulled his cigarette out from his mouth and noticed he had almost bitten entirely through the end.

Burnside’s fingers were still shaking and Paul lit it for him. Burnside stuck the cigarette back into his mouth and breathed deeply, exhaling a cloud of smoke. Paul looked at him strangely, “Are you alright, Neil?”

Burnside waved him away, “Yes, yes. I’m alright.”

“A bit of a shock, I know.”

“It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear, no.” Burnside concentrated on shutting all the drawers he had opened, stowing a pile of forms unceremoniously into the top drawer. “Did you come up here to discuss something in particular or just generalities about my state of emotional well-being?”

Paul blinked and frowned, “I thought we should talk, Neil. You can understand that details have been quite confused. All I know is that Willie Caine was killed foiling an assassination attempt on Yuri Filatov – a KGB agent.”

“Filatov wasn’t KGB. He was one of ours,” said Burnside, sinking into his chair and flicking his wrist in a way that indicated Paul should take a seat as well. He took another long draw from his cigarette, smoke billowing toward the ceiling. “We intended on lifting him but were…prevented from doing so.”

Paul shook his head, “Lucky break, I’d say. If Filatov had been brought over and word gotten out that he’d defected the Russians would have been forced to pull out of SALT.”

“Yes,” Burnside flicked the ash off the tip of his cigarette. “Yes, they would have.”

“It was the Russians behind the attempt, wasn’t it, Neil?” said Paul shrewdly. “Of course, that’s what I’d assume, seeing Caine’s interference.”

Burnside sighed, smoke seeping from between his lips, fogging up his eyesight in the brief moment it took for it to dissipate through the room, “Yes, it was the Russians.”

“Peele has reported that the talks aren’t going well for the Soviets. I suppose they hoped to frame SIS with Filatov’s assassination to give them a more graceful exit to the talks. I can only assume Sandbagger One was acting on your orders to prevent it.”

Burnside felt his upper lip pull upward slightly, a movement that felt rigid and unfamiliar. “Something like that.”

“Caine did a good job, then.”

“He did his job and nothing less, that’s not unusual.”

Burnside ground his cigarette butt into the ashtray on his desk, after uncovering it under a heap of papers. He reached into his pack and withdrew another cigarette. Paul leaned forward to oblige him with a light again.

Paul cleared his throat. “I’ve heard Sandbagger Two has been withdrawn. I’d have assumed you’d like him there as escort to our people just in case anyone decides to have another go.”

“I doubt it,” said Burnside. “Someone would have to be insane to try anything else now that the security has been stepped up by everyone in the ensuing panic.”

“Yes, but now that the Soviets have opened the proverbial door, you don’t think someone else might try something when we’d least expect it? Don’t you think it would be wiser to have Wallace on hand, just in case?”

“Yes, well, C made it very clear that withdrawing Wallace wasn’t my choice.”

Paul cocked his eyebrow but Burnside ignored him, throwing away his cigarette and pulling out a third from his pack. Paul once again leaned forward with his lighter.

“I – er – quite understand if you’d rather not talk about it now, Neil,” said Paul hesitantly. “Perhaps wait until tomorrow –”

“I said I’m fine, Paul,” Burnside snapped. “I’ve a job to do and I intend to see that it gets done.”

The intercom beeped again. Burnside stabbed the button with his finger, “Yes, what is it?” he said, rather more aggressively than he’d meant to.

“Jeff Ross on gray, sir.”

“Damn it, Marianne, I told you not to put him through!”

“He’s not through, sir. I’d only thought I’d ask if you’d changed your mind –”

“Well, I haven’t.”

“He says it’s urgent, sir.”

“Well tell him that he and his bloody urgent business can wait until I’m done here. I haven’t time for any mollycoddling. And while you’re at it, you can stop bothering me, as well.”

Marianne’s “Yes, sir” was cut off with the intercom’s violent click.

When Burnside turned back to Paul, he saw that the other man had stood. “I think I’d better get back to my office now, Neil. There’s not much more I need to know.”

“Don’t be silly,” Burnside waved him back down. “I’ve been on a blasted plane for three hours. I need to know what’s happening. How have the Soviet’s responded? C says they haven’t pulled out, but what are they saying? More importantly, do the other delegations believe them?”

“The most recent word is that now that the Soviets can’t blame SIS, they’re trying to avert suspicion away from themselves by introducing a third party as being behind the attempt. Honestly, however, with Sandbagger Two being withdrawn, we’ve lost our main point of contact.”

Burnside cursed under his breath. “You’re still communicating with Len Shepard?”

“Of course,” said Paul.

“Good, we’ll need to keep an open line through to him. He’ll be able to help us discern what’s actually going on as opposed to all the political doublespeak.”

“What about Wellingham? I thought you had a direct line through him?”

Burnside hesitated, “I’m not particularly certain whether or not Wellingham and I are still on speaking terms.” Unwilling to give Paul any more information than he needed and conscious that he had probably already said too much, Burnside changed subjects, “You don’t think the Americans will think better of trusting the Russians, perhaps force them to pull out?”

“I certainly hope not,” said Paul. “Armament control is something we want. Whether or not we have to play with someone we don’t like to get it is beside the point. After all, won’t a world with overall less nuclear power be better off?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Burnside murmured.

“What I can’t understand is why Filatov felt the need to be lifted now,” said Paul. “He could have waited a few more weeks, a month at most, at least until the talks had a chance to wind down. This way he’s gotten himself recaptured by the Russians. They’ve already tried to assassinate him once. He certainly won’t last very long.”

“No, he won’t,” said Burnside. He pulled out another cigarette, but before he had a chance to light it, the red phone rang shrilly.

Burnside reached for it impatiently, “D-ops – Yes. – Yes. – Tell him I’ll be right up.” He turned back to Paul, who had sometime during the conversation lit his own cigarette, now gently smoldering pinched between his fingers. “I’m sorry, Paul, but that was C. I’m wanted on the sixth floor. We’ll have to finish this later.”

“Not at all, Neil. He didn’t say if he wanted me as well?”

“No. I’ve got a feeling what he’s got to say is for my ears only.”

The elevator was silent as Burnside rode up to the sixth floor. His heartbeat sounded strangely loud in his ears. He rubbed his eyes, head pounding, trying to control the trembling of his fingers. He tried not to think about Willie, tried not to think about Willie being dead, tried to erase Willie’s ricocheting voice inside his skull, you’re not going to kill me.

It was a relief when the elevator doors slid open with a rush and Burnside stepped into the sixth floor hallway. He strode down the corridor and was met in C’s outer office by his PA.

“Mr. Burnside to see you, sir.”

C’s voice crackled through the intercom, “Thank you, Sandy, send him in.”

Burnside nodded to Sandy on his way into C’s office. Gibbs was seated at his desk.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, take a seat, Burnside.”

Burnside felt dread settle in his stomach. It was never good when Gibbs, usually never bothered with civility, asked him to take a seat.

“I’ve just got word that Wallace has arrived at Heathrow.”

Burnside raised his eyebrow, “Yes, sir?”

“He should be arriving within the hour. Before he does, I thought it best for you and I to clear the air.”

Burnside thought it prudent to remain silent and wait to see where Gibbs took the conversation. It wouldn’t due to open aggressions too soon.

“First of all, I think you should know that Peele has phoned and told me all about your underhanded dealings in Malta. It won’t do to deny anything. I understand all about Filatov, how you, Caine, and Shepard were hiding him from Soviet authorities, how you hoped to use his defection as leverage against the Soviets to get them to pull out of SALT.”

“If you do indeed know all about it, sir,” said Burnside coolly, “then I cannot see what you hope to gain from my further interrogation.”

Gibbs’ face was stony, his voice cutting as a whip, “I would watch my attitude, Burnside, if I were in your place. I should hardly like to burry myself deeper than I already was, not when I was already far enough down into what a less understanding observer might deem as treason.”

Burnside tilted his head upward, the word “treason” coiling viciously in his stomach, clenching his teeth hard to keep from retorting.

C continued, “What I called you up here for, Burnside, is to find out just how much Wallace knew of your actions in Malta, whether or not he knew that you had Filatov in hiding, and whether or not he deliberately denied this knowledge when asked by both the Deputy Chief and Permanent Undersecretary.”

Burnside tightened his fingers around the arms of his chair. “You can’t persecute Sandbagger Two for what he may or may not have done in Malta, not if he was only acting under my orders.”

“Sandbagger One now, isn’t he?”

Burnside blinked. It took a moment for the fact to sink in, took a moment for him to recover his breath. “Indeed.”

“What you say may be true, Burnside,” C proceeded briskly, “but it still remains to be seen whether or not it would be best for the service to have a Sandbagger under so much of your power.”

“The Sandbaggers have always been under the power of the Director of Operations, sir.”

“Yes,” said C slowly. “Yes, that’s quite true, Burnside.”

Burnside stood from his chair. “I’ve work to get back to, sir.”

“You still haven’t told me about Wallace.”

“Knowing whether or not Wallace helped me is inconsequential, sir,” said Burnside, working hard to control his voice, refusing to ball his hands into fists. “But if you must know, then the answer is yes. Wallace and Caine both knew I had Filatov in hiding. Both of them helped me keep him there – in whatever way they could. Whether that involved lying to the Permanent Undersecretary is up to you to decide.”

Gibbs narrowed his eyes, jaw set in a scowl.

Burnside continued, “I think you should also know, sir, that both Wallace and Caine wouldn’t ever do anything to damage the Service, and certainly not anything that wasn’t in the country’s best interest – and nor would I.”

“You may go, Burnside,” said Gibbs stiffly. “I think I’ve heard everything I needed to.”

Burnside turned on his heel without another word, and swept from the room with jaw clenched and stomach twisting.

Chapter Text

“The things that you regard as signs of strength are actually the symptoms of weakness. You’re frightened of the effects of alcohol, so you don’t drink. You’re frightened of emotional commitment so you live a life like a monk. And because you’re frightened of failure you drive yourself harder than is either necessary or useful.”
– Marianne Straker to Neil Burnside, Episode “Who Needs Enemies”

“She put personal feelings in front of professional ones. Do that in this business and you’re dead.”
“Maybe you’re dead already.”
– Neil Burnside and Willie Caine, Episode “A Question of Loyalty”

Burnside stopped in a washroom before going back to his office to splash cold water on his face. He ached all over. He yearned for nothing more than to crawl into a bed, to sleep, to forget it all had happened, perhaps go back to a time and place where none of this had happened – but that was irrational, useless wishful thinking and Burnside was a fool for wasting any time on it. He pushed it laboriously to the back of his mind, to the same place where all other pointless emotions and memories now resided and shouldered his way back into the hallway, walking toward his office door.

He’d need to get back in touch with Paul, perhaps send a call to Shepard to find out in more detail what was transpiring in Malta, certainly find some way to tell Mike that Gibbs was on the hunt, and –

“My God, Neil, you look awful.”

Burnside jerked to a stop and stopped a curse from slipping off his tongue.

“Jeff Ross to see you, sir,” said Marianne, quite needlessly as Jeff Ross was leaning against her desk in the middle of Burnside’s outer office, hands stuffed in his pockets and cigarette clenched in his teeth.

“What do you want, Jeff?”

“Since you refuse to answer your phone I decided to make a house call.”

“I wasn’t answering my phones because I didn’t want to be disturbed,” said Burnside, frowning and making his way to his office door.

Jeff’s eyes followed him. His voice was flat when he said, “I heard about Willie, Neil. I’m sorry.”

“Yes, you and everyone else.” Burnside looked at his door rather than at Jeff. He closed his fist around the knob, quite prepared to step through and close it behind him, shutting out Jeff, and Marianne, and Gibbs, and every bloody other person who seemed to want to make his business their own.

“I can’t imagine there’s anything you need to get done here that can’t be done by someone else. Just a whole bunch of lousy legwork. Maybe you should go home.”

“Why is it everyone’s bloody trying to get rid of me?” Burnside said forcefully, spinning to face Jeff.

Jeff was frowning. His usual droopy eyes seemed especially mournful, “You know I didn’t mean that, Neil. I only meant maybe you should try to get some rest.”

“I had three hours to rest on the plane. Wallace will be back in only a moment. He’ll have to be debriefed.”

“At least let me go get you a hamburger or something.”

“I’m not hungry, Jeff. And if you haven’t anything of consequence to tell me than I suggest you get out. I’ve work to do.” He turned abruptly to Marianne, who’d been watching the exchange with interest and now jumped slightly when he addressed her, “Marianne, send a memo down to the hutch. As soon as Wallace gets in I want him up here.”

“Yes, sir.”

Burnside twisted the doorknob and stepped into his office. He went to close the door but found himself annoyingly blocked by Jeff, who’d closed his hand around the edge.

“I mean it, Jeff, get out. I’m in no mood for this.”

“Hey,” said Jeff, voice irritatingly sardonic, “Willie was my friend too, you know. You’re not allowed to play the wallowing in self-pity card – not this time.”

“Wallowing in self-pity!” Burnside scoffed. “All I’m trying to do is clear up some rather unfortunate backlash and to try to stop anything else catastrophic from happening while being continuously barraged by everyone I know to go home to take it easy! I’m being encouraged to wallow in self-pity, Jeff, and I can assure you that I don’t intend to bow to it.”

Jeff opened his mouth to reply but another voice cut in,

“Unfortunate backlash?” said Marianne. She had stood from her desk and her hands were shaking as she spoke, “So that’s what you’ve classified Willie’s death under in your filing cabinet of an emotional process, have you?”

Burnside breathed slowly through his nose, “Please, Marianne, don’t embarrass yourself with any hysterics.”

“She’s right, you know,” said Jeff, raising his eyebrows.

Burnside rolled his eyes, “Decided to double up on me, have you?”

He met Jeff’s eyes to avoid looking at Marianne, whose face was pale and livid. The silence in the office stretched and roiled uncomfortably. Finally Jeff looked away, “Fine then, if you don’t want me here as a friend, then can I at least come in as an associate? I’ve got some news that might interest you.”

Burnside stepped aside with ill-grace, allowing Jeff to step inside and then shut the door firmly behind him.


Burnside impatiently snatched the offered cigarette and allowed Jeff to light it for him.

“You really do look like a wreck, Neil.”

“Thank you for your observation,” Burnside retorted. “And I’ll thank you, also, for turning my PA against me.”

“I’ve got the sneaking suspicion you’ve done that yourself, Neil,” said Jeff flatly. “I’d let up on her a little, if I were you. She’s had a pretty rough time of it.”

Burnside snorted, “Marianne Straker is no china doll.” He changed subjects tersely, “You said you had something to tell me?”

“Right,” said Jeff, mercifully dropping the subject of Burnside’s personal affairs. “I hope you won’t mind the liberty, but I dropped a hint to my director about what exactly happened with Willie and Filatov. I figured it was sort of in the public domain now. Anyway, that went from Turner to Vance and pretty soon all the way to the big man, himself. I figured it might be some welcome news in the midst of everything else that’s happened if I told you that the Americans may not be quite as trustful of the Soviets as you feared they were. That maybe Willie’s death can still mean something, besides saving Filatov from being used as a political tool.”

Burnside sighed in a mixture of relief and exasperation, “That’s all well and good, Jeff, but the Russians still haven’t pulled out of SALT and are becoming more unlikely to do so by the hour. Filatov will still undoubtedly come up before a firing squad and ultimately Willie Caine –” still would have died for nothing.

The thought was a sobering one, and Burnside had thought it many times since first hearing the news of Willie’s death but somehow had been unable to articulate it. He found himself still unable to say it aloud, even now that the facts sat so cruelly and irrevocably in front of his face.

Jeff sighed and shook his head, taking a long draw from his cigarette.

Uncomfortable with the unsaid words hanging in the air over his head, Burnside strode over to his desk and began rearranging the heaps of papers he had dislodged from his search for a lighter.

“Any news from Whitehall?” said Jeff at last.

Burnside looked up, “No, why?”

Jeff’s eyebrows rose, “You haven’t heard, then?”

“I obviously wouldn’t have been asking if I had,” said Burnside.

Jeff assumed an annoyingly condescending expression and answered, “Well, it’s only that your ex-father-in-law seems to have booked himself on the five o’clock fight back from Malta. I don’t know what happened, but it must have been something pretty big to get the PUS away from the talks.”

Burnside frowned. Wellingham, coming back? The thought struck him rather uneasily and he stowed the information away in his mind for further contemplation.

“Yes, that is interesting, isn’t it?” he muttered. He sank down into his desk chair. Jeff hooked another with his ankle and sat down. Aware that he was not going to get rid of Jeff any time soon, Burnside messaged his temples with his fingers, trying to ease the headache that was growing more pronounced by the minute.

The silence rolled on. It was still raining out. Gray light filtered through the window drapes. Rain beat rhythmically upon the glass.

“I am sorry about Willie, Neil,” said Jeff gently.

Burnside sighed. It was so strange to think of it, so incomprehensible. He almost wished that he had seen it, that somehow seeing it may have made the fact more concrete, might have made it more irreversible like it had with Laura Dickens and Tom Eliot.

“So am I,” said Burnside. “Best bloody operative I’ve seen in a long time.”

“You know he was more than just that.”

“Yes,” said Burnside quietly, bracing his forehead in his hands. He could feel Jeff’s eyes on the top of his head. “I knew it. Pity I never got the chance to tell him.”

Jeff didn’t answer.

Burnside found it easier to address the clutter of papers on his desk than look up. “There always is very much left unsaid, isn’t there?”

“Yep,” said Jeff. “You’d figure you’d get used to it in this line of work.”

Burnside smiled weakly and painfully at the heap of forms, remembering what he’d barked at Marianne earlier that day.

“That adds the tally to five in three years,” he said heavily.

“You can’t start thinking like that, Neil,” Jeff said sharply. “This is dangerous work. I’ve seen a couple of agents die in my time, too.”

“None under your watch.”

“Willie knew what he was getting into. Besides, none of us could have ever guessed that things would go down like they did. It definitely wasn’t your fault.”

“Yes, but still, I can’t help from wondering….”

The buzz of the intercom interrupted Burnside’s half-formed thought and Burnside hastily answered it, pulling himself out of the brief state of mental lapse he’d allowed himself to fall into. There wasn’t time for any of that now.

“Sandbagger Two, sir,” said Marianne’s voice from the other side of the line.

For a moment Burnside considered snappishly correcting her but somehow the words “Sandbagger One,” refused to slip off his tongue. “Send him in.”

The door opened and Mike Wallace stepped through, looking pale and haggard, eyes dulled in the artificial light generated from the lamp on Burnside’s desk.

“Mike,” said Burnside, standing from his chair.

“Hello, sir. Mr. Ross,” said Mike, nodding to each of them in turn. Despite his disgruntled appearance his voice was still as precise and clipped as ever.

“How are you, Mike?” said Jeff easily, standing and offering his hand casually.

“Alright, I suppose, Mr. Ross,” said Mike. There were dark circles under his eyes and, upon further study there seemed to be a slight grainy quality to his voice, like the early stages of hoarseness, as if he’d already been asked too many questions too many times.

“Sit down, Mike,” said Burnside brusquely.

“Thank you, sir,” said Mike, and despite his usual pretense of measured formality, practically fell into a waiting chair.


Mike shook his head. Come to think of it, Burnside couldn’t ever recall seeing the young man smoke.

“I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible, Mike. I understand you’re probably tired.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike. “I had rather hoped to go home and freshen up. I haven’t had time to change anything other than my jacket.”

Burnside wondered why Mike had needed to change his jacket, whether or not it had gotten any of Willie’s blood on it. He stubbornly pushed the thought to the back of his mind.

“Keep in mind had you stayed in Malta as I’d have ordered you still wouldn’t have had any time for relaxation by the pool.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike, rather quelled.

“Wait a minute,” Jeff interrupted, “Gibbs pulled Mike back without your consent?”

“C does as C thinks should be done, Jeff,” said Burnside, irritated.

“But that doesn’t make any sense. I would have thought you Brits would want every security measure you could get your hands on, seeing as it was one of your agents that was hit. The US delegate has just about doubled our security force.”

“Yes, well, like I said. C thought otherwise.”

Jeff shook his head, “What does Gibbs have against the Sandbaggers being there? I’d assumed bringing Mike back was your doing.”

“Why would you assume that?” said Burnside. The whole thing was rather longwinded. He didn’t understand why Jeff thought it was so important. After all, C’s interfering in the Special Section wasn’t anything new.

Jeff shrugged. “Maybe because you didn’t want to lose another one.”

The thought struck and quivered in Burnside’s chest. He gritted his teeth. “Well, you obviously assumed wrong.”

Jeff looked at Burnside with frustration. “There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”

“Isn’t there always?” said Burnside testily, and turned back to Mike. “Anyway, Mike,” he said, waving off the echoes of Jeff’s voice with a flick of his wrist. “How did you leave things in Malta? I understand the Russians are trying to cover it all up, saying the attempt was by an independent third party.”

Mike shrugged, looking hopeless, and exhausted, and dejected. Burnside wished he wouldn’t. It was something like looking into an unpolished mirror. “Honestly, sir, Peele pulled me out before I’d been able to hear much. I think both he and Wellingham were anxious to see the back of anyone to do with the Special Section. Len promised to keep us informed, though. I suspect he’s feeling a bit guilty for bailing on us.”

Burnside smothered a sigh of exasperation. It didn’t seem like anyone had even a speck of bloody information. For a wild moment he considered catching the next flight to Malta to try to root out the answers for himself. The idea was utterly without grounds, of course. Burnside was in enough hot water as it was. Still, in Malta was where Willie’s body was. Perhaps it would somehow help to dull the surrealism if Burnside could only –

Jeff’s voice cut through Burnside’s musings, “I think I’m beginning to see the picture, here.” He pointed at Burnside, “The SIS found out you’d ended up lifting Filatov without permission. Shepard got cold feet and brought them down on you, which explains why C was so anxious to get you and Mike out of Malta.”

Burnside ignored Jeff. “About that, Mike. I suggest you keep a wary eye on Gibbs. He’ll certainly be breathing down both our necks and it might not due for you to be seen as too companionable with me.”

Mike’s forehead furrowed. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Only that it seems that Peele’s gone and tattled. Gibbs is very unhappy with me – and with you by default. And if you wish to remain a Sandbagger it might be prudent for you to watch your step. It won’t do to have us both crucified.”

“Gibbs unhappy?” cut in Jeff yet again, “How ‘bout you try for the whole of Her Majesty’s Government? Not to mention Jimmy Carter and the US after the stunt you pulled. If all that had worked out like it had in that crazy brain of yours, you could have ended up sabotaging one of the most important international treaties this half of the century.”

“You knew that’s what I was planning, Jeff,” said Burnside coldly. “In fact, you knew I had Filatov.”

“Yeah, but maybe part of me was still sort of hoping you wouldn’t be insane enough to try it, and would pull out before it was too late.”

Burnside looked back at Mike, “Alright, I don’t see that we can achieve anything else here. You’ll report tomorrow to Philip Jerimiah for your debriefing.”

“I’m perfectly alright, sir,” Mike protested.

“It’s protocol,” Burnside answered sharply. “Besides, you’ll go because I’m ordering you to, Sandbagger One.”

Mike flinched as though Burnside had struck him. “Sandbagger One,” he said faintly, as if unaware he was even speaking. “I hadn’t thought – it seems so strange –”

“Yes, well, strange or not you’re head of the Special Section now, still under my authority, and will do as I say.” Burnside picked up the packet of forms on the top of the heap on his desk and scanned it, even though it hadn’t anything to do with the situation at hand.

“I’m certainly not head of much, am I, sir?” said Mike bitterly.

“What about you, Neil?” Jeff cut in and Burnside shot him a glare. “Maybe you could benefit from a couple of heart-to-hearts with Jeremiah.”

“I haven’t time for a psychiatrist,” Burnside snapped.

Jeff smiled wryly and shook his head, “I guess I’d better go. I can see nothing I say is going to get through to you.”

Burnside didn’t say anything as Jeff stood and made his way to the door, “Mike, take care. My condolences. Willie was good man.”

Mike swallowed. “Thank you, Mr. Ross.”

“See you, Neil. Do me a favor and don’t work yourself too hard over this. Give yourself some time to…well…you know. At least try to get some sleep.”

“Yes, mum,” said Burnside scathingly.

With another roll of his eyes and shake of his head, Jeff left the office and closed the door behind him.

Mike stood from his chair. “Sir, if there wasn’t anything else…” he began and Burnside lifted to hand to stop him.

“Just one more thing, Mike.”

“Yes, sir?” Mike clasped his hands behind his back, gaunt face passive as it always was unless set in a cheeky grin, holding something of the quality of a schoolboy’s.

Burnside looked down. He shuffled the pile of papers in his hand, carefully tucking the papers into a neat stack, letting the edges fall against the top of his desk. He breathed slowly before beginning. “I understand you were the first at Willie’s side?”

Mike cleared his throat before answering. “Yes, sir.”

“He was already unconscious by the time you got there?”

“Yes, sir. He…there wasn’t much time, sir. I got there as soon as I could –”

“Yes, and how did the Russians respond?”

“They bundled Filatov into the car right away, tried to make it seem like they hadn’t a clue what had happened, left a couple of people to sort it out but got their negotiator into the safety of the building.”

Burnside was still looking at the surface of his desk, at the swirling grain of the wood peaking from beneath the assortment of papers, forms, and documents. Suddenly his heart was thundering against his ribs. “Do you remember that business in Washington? With Senator O’Shea?” Burnside let the papers fall from his fingers and looked up.

Mike’s brow was furrowed in confusion. “Yes, sir. What –”

Burnside cut him off. “Do you remember what Willie did after O’Shea was hit?”

The wrinkles in Mike’s forehead abruptly smoothed as his expression went slack. Burnside looked at him hard, eyes narrowing, but Mike seemed to have focused his gaze on something over Burnside’s shoulder and refused to meet his eyes. His voice was cold when he answered, “Yes, sir.”

“And I suppose you remember when you told me you didn’t believe you could have done as Willie did.”

“Yes, sir, I remember.” Mike tilted his chin upwards only slightly, in a subtle expression of contempt that Burnside did not miss. Burnside realized his fingers had begun to shake again. He snagged the stack of papers off the desk and again tapped them into order.

“Tell me, what would have happened had the Russians taken another shot at Filatov?”

“They wouldn’t have done that, sir.” Mike’s voice crept out of his lips and seeped through Burnside’s ears like poison. “Once Willie was hit, their plan was ruined. It wouldn’t have made any sense to still carry out the assassination – not when they could no longer blame it on the SIS with any credibility.”

“That is beside the point, Sandbagger One!” Burnside’s heart thumped in his throat. The papers scattered across the desk. “You went straight to Caine, forgetting you still had a job to do, forgetting that Filatov was our man and deserving of our protection. You abandoned your post and duty to the service to help Willie – who, might I add, was quite beyond help by then.”

Mike’s face was stony, impassive, jawline square and hard, eyes now staring at the ceiling above Burnside’s head. Burnside could see the buttons on Mike’s jacket pull as he breathed deeply. “I don’t deny it, sir, if you’re asking me.”

Burnside pulled his eyes away from Mike’s stiff face and gathered the papers on the desk into another stack. He concentrated on lining up the edges of the pages, running his fingers down the edge. “I told you after O’Shea that I would have sacked Willie had he acted any differently. The same goes for you, Mike, and right now you would be out of the job if you weren’t the only one left.”

Mike didn’t answer. Burnside didn’t look up. All that could be heard was the tapping of the rain on the windowpanes and the steady ticking of the clock above the door.

“You’re dismissed.”

Burnside heard Mike’s shoes shuffle across the carpet, heard the creak of the doorknob as his fingers tightened around it.

“I think I have the right to remind you, sir,” Mike started jerkily. Burnside looked up. Mike’s eyes were steely, his jaw clenched, knuckles white around the doorknob. The door was open only a crack. Marianne was undoubtedly listening to every word.

Mike continued, “I’ve always been loyal to the Sandbagger’s, sir.” He breathed deeply before continuing, “And I’ve never heard you complain about it before, and certainly not while Willie and I were covering up your dirty work in Malta. If I’d been able to save Willie’s life by getting there even a second before I did, I’d have done so – Filatov be damned. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat, even if there had been a chance of that gunman taking another shot.”

Burnside didn’t answer. He suddenly found himself wondering what it would have been like to have been at Willie’s side, himself. He wondered if there was much blood, if Willie’s eyes were still open… Tom Elliot’s eyes had been closed. Laura’s hadn’t.

“Fire me if you will, sir, but I thought you should know that.” Mike left and closed the door behind him with a snap.

Slowly Burnside sunk into his chair behind the desk, fingers falling limp around the papers, and lost himself in recollections of the cruel Berlin lamplight reflected in her empty eyes.

Chapter Text

“There’s nothing I can do about anything. That’s the problem.”
“Everything I’ve ever valued…everything I’ve ever worked for, they’ve no place anymore. I’ve become an embarrassment to everyone, to the Service, even myself.”
“Ah, come on. What are you talking about?”
“– All because I believe in things like duty and patriotism, stand up when they play the National Anthem. I like girls who have long hair and wear dresses.”
“There’s only a couple of things wrong with you, Neil. You’re too lonely and you’re too tired.”
“And ineffective.”
“That’s not what your reputation says.”
– Neil Burnside and Jeff Ross, Episode “Opposite Numbers”

“A woman could support you until you found something else.”
“There isn’t anything else.”
– Karen Milner and Neil Burnside, Episode “Operation Kingmaker”

A noise in the outer office pulled Burnside out of his tangled thoughts and he slowly stood, bending his aching legs and stretching his arms over his head. He snatched his rumpled jacket where he’d thrown it over the back of a chair and pulled it over his shirt. He snaked his tie through his collar, knotting it neatly, and did up the top button of his shirt.

He walked across his office and pushed open the door. Marianne whirled around in surprise from where she’d been unpacking her bag.

“Sir!” she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were already in.”

“I’ve been in for quite a while,” said Burnside, “get me a cup of coffee will you?”

Marianne blinked, still obviously rattled at his abrupt appearance, “Of course, sir.” She hesitated, eyebrows pulling low in concern as she took in his wrinkled, haggard appearance, “You don’t mean to tell me you’ve been here the whole night?”

“Never mind where I’ve been, Marianne. Just get me the damned coffee.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” she said acidly and Burnside ignored her.

“Is anyone in yet?” he asked sharply, “C or Dalgetty?”

“I don’t know, sir,” she said.

“Well, find out.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. She wasn’t looking at him.

Burnside hadn’t time to deal with Marianne Straker’s personal feelings at the moment and turned abruptly on his heel, “I’ll be in my office.”

“Yes, sir,” she said again, almost snidely.

Burnside took a seat at his desk and compulsively straightened a stack of papers. When the work had begun to peter-out at about eleven-thirty the night before, he’d straightened up his office, put away all the dislodged papers from the previous afternoon, found twelve pens buried in the rubbish, and adjusted all the lamp shades. That hadn’t lasted long and he’d resorted to reading old reports and anything he could get his hands on about SALT for the rest of the night. He’d pillaged three and half packs of cigarettes.

There was a light tap on his door and Marianne came in, carrying a mug of coffee.

“D-Int is in his office, sir,” she said. “Shall I tell him you want to talk?”

“No, not yet,” said Burnside.

Marianne hesitated. Burnside raised his eyebrows, wordlessly inviting her to speak or get out.

“A report’s just come in, sir,” she said at last. “Malta authorities are releasing Willie’s body later today. The service will probably be on Friday or Saturday.”

Burnside didn’t know quite what so say or whether Marianne was expecting him to say anything at all. “Yes, Marianne?” he prompted impatiently.

“Well, I only – I only wondered whether I should pencil it in for you.”

Burnside waved his wrist in a dismissal gesture, “Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t you?”

“Well I –” she said reluctantly, “I didn’t know whether or not you wanted to go.”

“Why on earth wouldn’t I?” He said sharply. “I knew him for almost eight years.”

“Yes, of course, sir,” Marianne continued, “It’s only…I wasn’t sure if it was customary for D-Ops to go to his Sandbaggers’ funerals. I know you didn’t go to –”

He cut her off flatly, “With both Tom Eliot and Laura Dickens there were no bodies to burry.” Burnside looked at Marianne hard. She met his gaze unflinchingly.

“Of course, sir.” She turned and left the office without saying another word and Burnside watched her with a frown as she closed the door behind her. It was almost as if she was asking him if he only went to funerals of those whose deaths he was not responsible for.

He took a sip of his coffee, snatching a report off the top of the pile he had already read many times before. It was something that had come in the day before. An English foreign business investor, Landon Moore, had gone missing in Lebanon, suspected of being the work of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It wasn’t anything very important. Undoubtedly, once the ransom was announced it would be paid in due course and that would be the end of it.

It really wasn’t at all something a Sandbagger would be involved in. However, Moore was, in fact, a relatively influential businessman, who had ties in several companies, including Tesco and BP, and Burnside was a bit puzzled that C hadn’t at least suggested it as a possible mission – Burnside would have shot it down, of course. There was always the possibility, however, that C hadn’t brought it to Burnsides attention because –

Burnside reached for the red telephone, dialing the sixth floor. “Hello, C?” he said when he heard the click on the other end. “Burnside, here. Can I come up to see you, sir?…Thank you. I’ll be there in only a moment.”

Burnside tucked the manila folder under one arm, ran his palms over his jacket in an attempt to get the wrinkles out and marched out of his office. Marianne looked up from her typewriter.

Burnside said as he past her, “I’ll be in C’s office. Call Wallace, will you? I’ll need to speak with him when I get back.”

“Speak with him like you did yesterday?” she said and Burnside stopped before going out the door, whirling to face her.

“What I say to my Sandbaggers is no business of yours.”

Her lips were set in a straight line, eyes hard. “Yes, sir.”

When he reached C’s outer office, Sandy waved him in immediately. Burnside straightened his tie and pushed open the door. C was sitting at his desk, an unfamiliar man sitting in a chair before him.

Burnside stopped short. “I’m sorry to interrupted, sir. I hadn’t realized you had company.”

“Not at all, Burnside,” said C and gestured to the man in the chair, who stood to meet Burnside. “I’m sure you’ve met Hugh Morgan before, station Number Two in Vienna.”

Morgan, limping slightly, extended a hand to shake Burnside’s. Burnside realized he had left a cane propped against his chair.

“Ah yes,” said Burnside. He studied Morgan carefully, sizing him up. He could tell the older man was doing the same to him. “What brings you here?”

“Purely pleasure,” said Morgan with a smile. Burnside recognized him now; he’d only met him once or twice before. He was a large man, taller even than Burnside, and had a square face topped with a mop of graying red curls. “I’m on leave for a week and the weather’s been a bit gloomy there lately so I decided to come to London. I knew C at Bonn station when he was Head and he invited me up for a little chat.”

Burnside nodded slowly. “Oh?” He pulled his upper lip into a passable imitation of a smile. “I’d have thought you’d rather spend your leave back in Vienna. I’m sure they have more attractive weather than us no matter how gloomy is might have been.” Burnside glanced out the window and, although it had stopped raining sometime the night before, the sky was a dismal, heavy gray.

Morgan smiled genially, “I suppose you’re right, but home-sweet-home and all that. You know how it is, I’m sure.” His face was lined, his eyes piercing blue and calculating trained on Burnside’s face.

Burnside raised his eyebrows, “Yes, I’m sure I do.”

“What did you come up for, Burnside?” said C, and Burnside turned his attention to him.

He pulled the folder out from under his arm and placed it on C’s desk. “I wanted to speak to you about the businessman who’s gone missing in Lebanon, Landon Moore.”

“Ah yes,” said C, flipping open the folder and scanning the report casually, “suspected PLO job, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” said Burnside, “although there hasn’t been any demand for ransom yet.”

C was still flipping through the report, eyebrows raised. Morgan cut in, “Moore…he’s a UK foreign investor isn’t he?”

“Yes,” answered Burnside. “He’s holds primary stocks in almost every company coming out of the Middle East.”

“What would PLO want with him?” Morgan asked.

“Money. Nothing unusual there,” Burnside answered. “They’ll get it, too. Unless – well,” he addressed Gibbs, who looked up with a wary expression. “I’ve been thinking, sir. Perhaps it would be better to send Wallace, mount a rescue operation. Moore is, after all, a highly influential stockholder. It wouldn’t do for anything…unfortunate to happen before we can secure his release –”

“Mount a special operation?” said Gibbs. Burnside watched Gibbs carefully for any outward sign of what he was thinking. He looked vaguely contemplative. “Yes…I can’t deny I’d thought of approaching you….”

“Then you’ll agree, sir?” said Burnside. “I can’t imagine anyone in Whitehall’s very pleased about Moore’s disappearance. They’ll undoubtedly be happy to hear SIS is doing something to get him back.”

Morgan interrupted again, “Why risk a special operation when the ransom might just be paid and Moore secured tidily without any chance of bloodshed?”

Burnside glanced at Morgan out of the corner of his eye before answering, the man looked perfectly innocent, if not very interested in the proceedings, “It’s generally frowned upon to hand over grand sums of money to terrorists. The powers that be seem to think it encourages them.”

C looked at Burnside shrewdly, “I wasn’t expecting to hear any concern for the politicians coming from your mouth, Burnside. This wouldn’t have anything to do with appeasing Wellingham after your actions in Malta?”

Burnside shrugged, making sure to keep his face relaxed. “I haven’t spoken with Wellingham, sir, but I’m sure he wouldn’t object.”

“I don’t know that I like sending Wallace, last Sandbagger as he is.”

“Exactly, sir,” said Burnside quickly. “He’s the only one we have left to send.”

Gibbs broke eye contact. He slowly closed the folder and handed it back to Burnside. “I’ll think about it, Burnside.”

Burnside tucked the folder back under his arm and nodded to C. “Thank you, sir.” He nodded farewell to Morgan.

“Pleasure meeting you, Burnside,” said Morgan.

“And you,” Burnside answered, and slipped out of the office.

He made his way back to his own office. Morgan stuck uncomfortably in a corner of his mind. The man was perfectly pleasant, almost too pleasant. Burnside didn’t trust him. Burnside didn’t trust anyone. He certainly didn’t trust Gibbs.

He paused outside his outer office door, hearing voices. He recognized Mike’s, “…What about you? I mean to say, you and Willie were –”

“Oh no,” Marianne’s voice intercepted Mike’s quickly. “No, thank you, but I’m…quite alright. It’s Mr. Burnside I’m worried about.”

“What do you mean?” said Mike.

“Yes,” said Burnside, pushing through the door, “What do you mean, Marianne?”

Marianne was so taken aback at his sudden appearance that she leapt to her feet, “Sir!”

“I’m sorry to interrupt this little powwow, but I suggest in the future you take your sordid, duplicitous discussions somewhere else besides my outer office.”

Mike’s frown, appearing as soon as Burnside had walked in, deepened further. “You know that isn’t what she meant, sir.”

“No, and I suppose you didn’t mean anything by it either?” said Burnside sharply. “Frankly, I’m quite sick of all this double-dealing behind my back.”

Marianne frantically shook her head. “Sir, I only –”

Burnside cut her off sneeringly, “Ah, yes, but I’d forgotten you’ve only my best interests at heart, Miss Straker, me being left out in the cold and all.” He turned away from her burning eyes to face Mike, who looked equally angry. “Mike, come in here, I need to talk to you.”

He led the way into his office, Mike following him. He handed Mike the folder and waited until he’d opened and it and scanned the contents before speaking, “C hasn’t approved it yet, but I’d like you to brief yourself anyway.”

“A special operation?” said Mike, forgetting his anger in professional curtesy that was almost infuriating.

“Yes,” said Burnside. “If all goes as I hope it will, you’ll be leaving for Lebanon tomorrow afternoon.”

“Of course,” Mike’s brow furrowed. “It’s only…I hadn’t expected to be sent out on another operation quite so soon.”

“You know as well as I do that Sandbagger work can’t be predicted,” said Burnside. “Report to Missions Planning. You’ll have to be armed, of course. We’ll have to work out the best way for you to locate where the PLO is holding Moore, and then of course the best avenue of infiltration –”

“Sir?” Mike interrupted, “isn’t all this marginally unusual? Sandbaggers don’t usually intervene in hostage situations, not when it’s someone like Moore at risk. If you told me it was the Duke of Devonshire or a Minister of State –”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Prime Minister, herself,” Burnside snapped. “You will approach this operation with just as much care and precision as you would any operation.”

“Of course, sir,” said Mike.

Burnside gritted his teeth, holding in a sigh. When Mike continued to refuse to meet his eyes he said grudgingly, “The truth is, Mike, that I’m carrying out this operation in the hope that, should it all go smoothly, C will be slightly more forgiving about what happened in Malta. Westminster wants Moore released and unharmed and we both know it’s them who’ve got Gibbs by the ear.”

“So it’s another set-up,” said Mike flatly.

“It’s another operation, Sandbagger One,” said Burnside.

Mike’s eyebrows rose, “And if it doesn’t all work out the way you want it to?”

“Then there’s a very good chance both you and I will be out of the job.”

“Alright then,” said Mike with a brisk nod. “I’ll head down to Missions Planning.” He stopped on the threshold to turn back to look at Burnside, “Just one more thing, sir.”

Burnside sighed, his headache was coming back. He didn’t think it had ever really gone away, “What is it, Mike?”

“I don’t think there’s much chance of C forgetting what happened in Malta. I know I never will.”

Burnside watched Mike leave, clenching his jaw tightly. Marianne peaked passed her typewriter to look at him. Suddenly the office felt very small and suffocating. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he followed Mike out of the office.

“Where are you going?” Marianne’s voice called him back.

“Out for walk,” Burnside snapped, raising an eyebrow. For a moment he considered tacking on and since when has my every move been accountable to you? but somehow didn’t. He was suddenly very tired. He hadn’t slept the night before and had barely eaten a thing since…he couldn’t remember when. Perhaps he’d go get something to eat, wander down to the park, try to clear his head.

It wasn’t until he’d stepped out of the doors, into the wet and chilly air, when Burnside realized how stale the air in his office had become. The street was full of the sound of rushing tires on the pavement, and pedestrians walked passed carrying briefcases and umbrellas on their arms.

He snagged a newspaper out of a stand and wandered down the sidewalk, finding comfort in the blissful unconcerned faces of passersby and the clatter of noises around him, the honking horns, revving motors, and rhythm of indistinguishable voices. He bought a sandwich at a vendor and peeled off the road into Victoria Tower Gardens. It wasn’t crowded. It was the middle of a workday and an ugly day at that, after all. It would probably start raining again later.

He found a bench under a tree so the wood wasn’t too wet. He realized he’d forgotten his jacket. There was a slight chill to the air. A breeze knocked droplets of water off the leaves overhead, showering Burnside with water that trickled through his hair and down the collar of his shirt.

He unwrapped his sandwich and shook out the newspaper. There was an article about Landon Moore on the second page, about his wife and young son who were anxious for information. Burnside didn’t bother to read it.

Burnside idly flipped through the paper, eyes trailing across an article outlining the disappearance of a television writer and his girlfriend over the Gulf of Alaska. His sandwich tasted dry and grainy in his mouth. He set it aside, pulling out a cigarette instead.

There wasn’t anything about Willie’s death in the paper, nothing about Malta at least – of course there wouldn’t have been – just a two-by-two square in the obituaries column, not even a picture to go with the name.

He checked his watch. A little passed ten o’clock. It had been a day and Willie Caine was still dead.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

Burnside turned abruptly, newspaper rustling. “Jeff! What are you doing here?”

“Same thing as you,” said Jeff Ross casually, moving Burnside’s discarded sandwich to join him on the bench. “Just out for a walk on a lousy morning.”

At Burnside’s raised eyebrows, Jeff elaborated, “Alright, fine. It’s not a coincidence. I stopped by your office. Marianne said you’d gone for a walk to clear you head. I figured you’d come here.”

“She did, did she?” said Burnside darkly, “I suppose she sent you after me to make sure I didn’t do anything foolish.”

“Nah,” said Jeff, picking up Burnside’s half-finished sandwich and examining it, “Anyway, I could never stop you from doing anything foolish even when I tried.”

Burnside allowed himself a small smile, folding his paper neatly and exhaling a cloud of smoke. Fog drifted low over the Thames. Another breath of wind shook loose a shower of droplets from the tree above, which splattered harmlessly off Jeff’s jacket.

“You’ll catch your death of pneumonia dressed like that,” said Jeff.

“I don’t need a wet-nurse, Jeff,” Burnside answered.

“I heard you’re mounting another special operation,” said Jeff. “In Lebanon with that kidnapped investor.”

“Marianne tell you that, too?”

“No,” Jeff answered, crossing his legs, “I bumped into Mike on his way to Missions Planning. He looked pretty peeved about something. I think I know who that something was.”

“So what if he was?” said Burnside. “He’s head of the special section now. He should be expected to act as such.”

“Cut the kid some slack, Neil,” said Jeff, a hint of exasperation to his voice. “I’m sure he’s trying his best. And just between me and you, working with you isn’t exactly a walk in the park.”

“You sound like Marianne.”

“While you’re at it you can cut her some slack, too.”

Burnside looked straight ahead. “If Mike Wallace is upset because he won’t get any petting from me than perhaps he’s in the wrong place.”

Jeff sighed, “You’re turning people against you, Neil. I’d thought you’d learned by now that the only way you can expect to stay afloat in this business is to learn who your friends are.”

“And who your enemies are,” Burnside added. “Shall we walk?” he said, abruptly standing.

Jeff followed him, changing subjects, “Anyway this Moore business, it isn’t exactly Sandbagger style is it? Moore’s filthy rich, let him pay his own way out. Is Gibbs pressuring you into it?”

“No, actually,” Burnside answered. “I’m the one who suggested it to C. I’m speaking to Wellingham about it later; perhaps he’ll be able to convince Gibbs to launch it if I’m unsuccessful.”

Jeff looked at him, “Since when have you been interested in politics?”

Burnside looked at Jeff out of the corner of his eye, footsteps echoing off the wet pavement in the empty park, “Like you said before, perhaps I’m beginning to learn just how wise it is to know who my friends are.”

“Ah ha, a little added incentive to get you back in their good books, huh?”

Burnside smiled tightly, “Something like that.”

“You had a full head of hair when you started this job, you know,” said Jeff wryly. “Anyway, I didn’t think Wellingham was very happy with you now. What makes you think he’ll take your side?”

“He’ll simply have to lay aside his personal feelings for the good of the Service,” said Burnside. “It’s what I’ve always done.”

“Yeah, well, not everyone’s a Neil Burnside,” said Jeff with half a laugh, “…thank God.”

When Burnside returned to his office, Marianne was typing something up in triplicate. Burnside didn’t know what it was and didn’t care. That was what he had a bloody PA for anyway.

She looked up as he entered, “Sir Geoffrey Wellingham’s called, sir. Said he wanted to see you.”

“He did?” said Burnside, “I was just about to place a call to him, myself.”

“Stroke of luck, perhaps?” she asked.

“I don’t believe in luck, not where Wellingham’s concerned,” said Burnside. “I’d better set right off then.”

Marianne stopped him, “I thought you’d like to know, the Deputy Chief will be returning from Malta later today. He should be in his office around three.”

Burnside browned, “First Wellingham, now Peele? The jackals prepare to close in on their prey, do they?”

Marianne cocked an eyebrow but didn’t say anything, clearly in concurrence with his observation.

“Alright then, I shouldn’t be long with Wellingham. Tell Mike where I’ve gone if he has any questions about the operation.”

“Yes, sir.”

Burnside snatched his coat from his office before doing an about-face and heading back down and out of the building. He caught a cab to the Foreign Office in Westminster and was ushered into Wellingham’s office almost immediately upon arrival.

Wellingham looked grim and tired sitting behind his desk. He glanced up from his papers when Neil walked in.

“Hello, sir,” said Burnside.

“Ah, Neil. Take a seat. Tea?”

“Thank you, sir.” Burnside waited for Wellingham to begin, deeming it wise to not open before he knew exactly what he’d been called for.

Wellingham took a sip of his steaming cup of tea, and waited until he’d placed it back on the saucer before saying, “Belinda sends her condolences.”

Burnside’s eyebrows rose involuntarily. He had not been expecting any sympathy from Wellingham about Willie’s death. Surely that wasn’t all he’d called Burnside to discuss.

“Thank you, sir.”

Wellingham cleared his throat, “I wasn’t aware she’d known Caine.”

“He was best man at the wedding, sir.”

“Ah yes,” he took another sip of tea, “now I remember.”

“I trust you had a smooth flight back?” said Burnside in a measured voice, drinking from his own cup.

Wellingham met his gaze shrewdly, “It wasn’t particularly eventful, no, and certainly a great deal less so than the hours beforehand.”

Although he wanted to ask what the political situation now looked like in the talks, Burnside deemed it prudent not to press the issue. “What is it you wanted to see me about, sir?”

“I’m sure you already know, Neil,” said Wellingham.

Burnside sighed. He’d expected it, not exactly relished it, certainly hoped for the contrary, but certainly expected it. “Peele’s tattled to you too, has he?”

“Peele, as he indicated to everyone’s great surprise, is apparently no idiot,” said Wellingham grimly. “He foresaw that distributing his knowledge about your antics in Malta would be best for his career if ever it was brought to light in circumstances less ideal for him. Can you really blame him for that?”

“For taking every opportunity to further his own job even at the expense of mine? No I can’t blame him for that,” Burnside answered sardonically. “It certainly was a brilliant plan; now he looks like the golden boy, washing his hands of the underling’s dirty doings, whereas I am still in the perfect position as scapegoat. In fact, I rather thank him for it. Now that he’s shown himself to be more than a stuffed peacock I shall never make the mistake of underestimating him again.”

Wellingham sighed, “And that is exactly why I endorsed Gibbs when he was thinking of transferring you to Madrid a month ago after the unflattering report about you came out of the CIA.”

“Ah yes,” Burnside said snidely, “you never did explain the reasoning behind that particular duplicity.”

“Duplicity to whom, Neil?” Wellingham asked levelly, “Certainly not to the Service, and by extension not even towards you, for haven’t you always considered your own career second only to the good of SIS?”

“And you thought it would be in the best interest of the Service to see me removed as D-Ops?”

“Yes,” said Wellingham slowly, “Yes, perhaps I did. It is because of your inability to trust people that makes you, yourself, untrustworthy Neil. And a D-Ops, no matter how good he may be, needs to inspire confidence.”

Burnside almost rolled his eyes but stopped himself, “This is a dirty game we play, sir. I refuse to believe I’m the only one in the Service to acknowledge it. Trust is merely a shallow sentiment in this world, quaint perhaps, but ultimately without grounds.”

“Don’t give me a lecture, Neil,” Wellingham warned. “I know all about this ‘game’ you like to play. I even like to entertain the idea that I’m quite an accomplished player myself. But that still doesn’t erase the issue at hand: that your extremist ways are making you dangerous, not only dangerous to your Sandbaggers and to the Service, but dangerous to the rest of the world that might get caught up in your war path. Interfering in SALT was unacceptable, Neil. The consequences, had you succeeded in giving the Soviets an avenue to pull out, could have been catastrophic.”

“The Soviets cannot be trusted, sir,” Burnside said flatly. “My only regret in Malta is that my plan did not, in fact, succeed.”

“And I suppose Caine’s life doesn’t rank among your regrets either, then?” said Wellingham.

Burnside’s hand shook slightly as he put down his cup of tea, making the china rattle against the saucer. He clenched his jaw, trying to find something to say, “Had I been in Malta – had you not insisted I return – had I – I would have – And Willie –”

But Wellingham appeared not to be listening. He traced the rim of his cup with his finger. “It was the Russians, wasn’t it, Neil? Who tried to kill Filatov?”

Burnside pulled his fingers into fists to keep them from trembling. “I’m not sure I quite know what you mean, sir.”

“I mean to say, you were very keen on sabotaging SALT –”

“And you believe I’d have killed Filatov, our own man, just to give the Russians an excuse for pulling out of the talks?” Burnside said jerkily.

“Like you said,” Wellingham fixed Burnside with a level gaze over the brim of his cup, “it is a dirty game we play.”

“Surely I would have told my Sandbaggers if I’d been planning it,” Burnside scoffed.

“Perhaps you did,” Wellingham muttered.

“What do you mean by that, sir?”

“I think you know, Neil. It was no secret that Caine and Wallace both were growing uneasy about your progressively more forceful tendencies.”

“And you think Willie would have tried to interfere in my plans? Plans, I might add, that were certainly never made!”

“For goodness sake, sit down, Neil!” Wellingham snapped.

Burnside looked down and became aware that he was pacing violently in front of Wellingham’s desk. Burnside sank back into his chair. “I did not orchestrate Filatov’s assassination attempt,” he said flatly.

“But you don’t deny it ever crossed your mind?” said Wellingham.

Burnside didn’t answer right away. For a moment his throat was too tight to speak. “You will not pin the responsibility of Willie’s death on me, at least not so blatantly.”

Wellingham’s voice was still gallingly calm, “I’m afraid I’m only remembering Laura Dickens, Neil.”

So am I. But his voice did not rise to his lips and for a moment there was silence. Wellingham took another sip of his tea. Burnside concentrated on breathing deeply, attempting to quiet the frantic beating of his heart.

Burnside wondered if Wellingham, when he’d first dangled his daughter in front of a young, highly receptive Sandbagger with the distant promise of someday becoming D-Ops, had ever imagined Burnside turning out as he stood before him now, Frankenstein’s Monster as he must now seem.

“Alright, Neil,” said Wellingham brusquely, as if the previous conversation had never taken place, “I’ve work to do so unless you had anything further to discuss….”

“Actually, sir,” said Burnside, briskly. “I’d been planning to call on you myself when I got your message. I’m assuming you’ve heard of the disappearance of Landon Moore is Lebanon?”

Wellingham looked up, an expression of cautious interest on his face.

“I’ve approached C on the possibility of sending Wallace out to look around, see if he can get a focus on Moore and get him out. It’s almost certainly the PLO behind it –”

Wellingham cleared his throat, “I’m not sure I quite like the idea of you mounting another special operation, not only a day after Malta.”

“Yes, sir,” said Burnside hastily, “but Moore is a highly influential financier in the Middle East. Any absence of movement from the SIS could be seen as lack of enthusiasm for his safety, perhaps reflect badly on the Service in the future –”

“Don’t think I don’t realize what you’re doing, Burnside,” Wellingham cut him off.

Burnside assumed his most perfected expression of innocence. “His wife, Katelyn Moore is the sister of Parliament Member Dean Cotterill –”

“Yes, I know the name, Neil,” said Wellingham with a sigh. He stood from his desk and Burnside, understanding he had been dismissed, stood from his chair as well. “I’m not promising anything,” Wellingham continued, “but I will consider it.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Burnside, and smiled to himself as he left the office.

Chapter Text

“I’m the last one left – and you’re not going to kill me! Do you want my resignation now or in the morning?”
“You won’t leave, Willie. Nor will I…much as I want to.”
– Willie Caine and Neil Burnside, Episode “Special Relationship”

“There’s a temporary manning standard in force. I’m only allowed two Sandbaggers.”
“But if the manning standard’s lifted or if one of them is –”
– Neil Burnside and Marianne Straker, Episode “Opposite Numbers”

Mike was bent over a map atop a desk in the ops-room, duty-ops officer Stanley Bonham was next to him, tapping the map with a pen. “Moore was last seen in East Beirut,” he was saying, “There’s very little trace of where they might have taken him, but the best bet is right over the Green Line into West Beirut.”

“How would I get in?” said Mike, “I can’t very well waltz right across the Green Line.”

Burnside braced his elbows on the desk, studying the map of Lebanon, crisscrossed with red and black lines and pins, “You could come around on the Mediterranean. Under cover of darkness, perhaps.”

“And if I can indeed get a fix on Moore, what then? I’ll need a quick getaway if I’m planning an armed raid.”

“Same way you came in,” said Burnside.

“There are bound to be patrols,” Mike replied.

“Either that or crossing the Green Line, where there are certain to be patrols.”

“It’ll be risky either way,” Stanley cut in. “Suppose Moore isn’t even in Beirut anymore? They might have brought him inland.”

“Yes, well, Mike isn’t leaving until tomorrow afternoon – if he leaves at all. There’s still chance of more information coming through our Beirut Station.”

Burnside turned at the sound of the ops-room door swinging open and the unsteady shuffling of feet upon the steps. It was Hugh Morgan, cane tapping as he limped across the floor.

“Burnside,” he said with a nod.

Burnside inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Mike looked up questioningly and Burnside said, not taking his eyes off Morgan, who – in turn – continued to stare directly at Burnside, “Mike, meet Hugh Morgan, Station Number Two at Vienna. Morgan, meet Mike Wallace, Sandbagger One.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Mike courteously. Mike, a head shorter than Burnside already looked almost dwarfed beside Morgan’s towering, strapping build.

“Sandbagger One,” grunted Morgan, nodding again. “Gibbs sent me down,” he explained. “Lebanon’s a go.”

Burnside tore his eyes away from Morgan to face Mike, “You’re on then, Mike. You’ll have new identification, of course. I suppose your French is still just as good as it was two months ago for that mission in Sukhumi?”

Oui, et encore mieux que le travail,” said Mike.

Soyez heureux vous avez encore un employ,” said Morgan, rather sharply and Mike averted his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

Burnside’s eyebrows were raised but it was clear he wasn’t going to find out what had been said. “You’ll set out tomorrow afternoon then, report to the embassy, find out how to go forward from there.”

“Keep in mind there is a military action going on,” Morgan cut in. “It’s really not much better than a war zone.”

“Yes, but the conflict is mostly focused in South Lebanon on the Israeli border,” Burnside said impatiently.

“Yes, sir,” said Mike. He didn’t look at Burnside as he continued so Burnside couldn’t read his expression, “What shall we call the operation, sir, Operation Clemency?”

Burnside’s eyes flickered to Morgan before responding, “Operation…Jackal.”

Stanley said, “I’ll fix you up with a gun. You favor 38 Smith and Wesson right, Mike? Or perhaps a Beretta 418, easier concealed –”

“Playing at James Bond now, are we?” said Burnside.

Mike’s eyes flickered to Burnside briefly before turning back to Stanley, “Smith and Wesson will be fine.”

“You’ll want to minimize the bloodshed, Mike,” Burnside continued. “Ideally you’ll get in, grab Moore, and get out again.”

“Easier said than done, sir,” said Mike.

“Perhaps set up some sort of distraction?” Morgan intercut. “Depending on how large their shelter is, perhaps set up a few charges. You can slip in while they deal with the chaos.”

Mike looked at Burnside as though seeking his approval and Burnside gave a terse, rather irritated nod.

“Yes, sir,” said Mike.

Mike and Stanley began ironing out finer details, contact names and code words for checking up later. Burnside looked at Morgan covertly out of the corner of his eye. The older man was scanning the ops-room, taking in the maps pinned to the walls, the radio equipment, scattered wires and papers, probably musing about what he would do with it if he were at the helm.

Burnside studied the man, graying red hair to the cane gripped in his left hand. Morgan turned his head and caught Burnside staring. He gave his cane a slightly rueful nudge and explained, “Took a bit of shrapnel in the knee in the Tunisian Campaign. Ruined my military career so I started in at intelligence where I could get a desk job. What about you, Burnside, how’d you get into the business?”

Not expecting casual conversation, it took Burnside a moment to respond, “I left the RM in ’62 to join the NID. After they merged with the Ministry of Defense, I transitioned into SIS work.”

“You were a Sandbagger before you took the job of D-Ops, weren’t you?” said Morgan.

“Yes, for seven years, following a brief stint in Mission Planning,” said Burnside briskly.

“Do you think that helped you as D-Ops, having the job of a Sandbagger first?” said Morgan. His voice was perfectly casual, but seemed to hold the weight of several unasked questions. Or do you think it hindered you, making you partial toward the Sandbaggers and unable to make a rational decision in their opposition?

“I think it gave me an advantage, yes,” Burnside snapped. “It gave me a perspective most others in this job would lack. I knew exactly what Sandbaggers were up against, you see, and understood that it wasn’t always the KGB we had to look out for.”

“Ah ha,” said Morgan, nodding slightly, but didn’t continue. “Well, it’s getting late. I’d best get on to supper and leave you to it.”

Burnside watched in silence as Morgan left the ops-room, unsteady gate and tapping of the cane creating a strange tattoo that was lost among the clicking of typewriter keys and ringing of telephones.

“Is C still in?” said Burnside as he walked through the door to his outer office, interrupting Marianne, who’d been buttoning her coat.

“No, sir,” she answered. “He went for dinner at the embassy almost two hours ago.”

“What about Peele?”

“He didn’t come in at all today,” she said, “went home as soon as he got back from Malta.”

Burnside gritted his teeth in exasperation. Lazy, pompous fool – Marianne looked at him with raised eyebrows and he realized he must have spoken aloud. “I’ll be in my office – take down a letter to the Field School. We’re in need of another Sandbagger, see if they’ve got anyone on hand. Bring it in when you’re finished so I can sign it.” Burnside pushed through his office door and Marianne dumped her bag on her chair and shrugged off her coat again with a sigh.

Burnside fell into his desk chair and rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, trying to ignore the sense of unease that simmered in his stomach. Something about the mission just didn’t feel right, perhaps it was Gibbs’ apron strings around Burnside’s neck, or the vague sense of a hasty cob job, or just a lingering side effect from hearing about Willie’s death, but something felt off, and it was making Burnside jittery. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it as a matter of custom, hardly realizing he was doing so.

Marianne wrapped lightly on the door before entering, dropping her letter before Burnside on the desk. He signed it without reading what it said – she’d proved herself a capable PA so far, after all, if not a general nuisance – and she took a step toward the door before turning back.

“Sir, it’s passed ten –”

“I have a clock over the door,” interrupted Burnside. “If you want to leave just say so. I haven’t any more work to keep you here.”

“I mean to say, sir,” she faltered, “don’t you think you’d better be going home, too?”

“It’s no concern of yours whether I go home or not,” said Burnside.

“Sir,” she sighed and Burnside almost felt like joining her. He was in no mood for anymore arguments, not now. “You really ought to get a good night’s sleep. You’ll have to have your wits about you for Mike’s mission –”

“Mike’s mission is my business, Marianne,” said Burnside. “I’ve already told you, you may go. Consider yourself dismissed.”

“At least eat some supper, sir,” she insisted. “Let me get you a sandwich. We could stop off at a shop –”

“We?” Burnside scoffed, “we are not going anywhere.”

“Sir, please,” something in her voice sounded different, some slight, pleading tone that told him she wasn’t trying to pick a fight, that – again – she was only trying to help, only trying to do something when she felt so helpless and – and understanding her motives wasn’t making Burnside feel any better about anything.

“Alright,” Burnside snapped, standing so abruptly he caught the edge of a folder and sent it tumbling to the floor, “if I promise to get something to eat will you leave me bloody alone?”

“Alright, sir,” she said meekly, but added slyly. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just tag along. I haven’t anything to eat either. There’s the McDonalds on the corner –”

“No, not there,” said Burnside shortly, yanking his coat off the rack and pulling his arms violently through the sleeves, “It’ll be just my luck to bump into Jeff Ross, and I only have patience enough for one nursemaid at a time.”

“Chinese, then?” said Marianne.

“If you insist.” Burnside shouldered through the door, letting Marianne catch it as it swung closed behind him. He stabbed the elevator button impatiently when he got there, seeing Marianne’s dark coat and hair in his peripheral vision even when he refused to look at her directly, not wanting to see the look of smug victory on her face.

The elevator slid open with a ping and Burnside stalked aboard, Marianne following silently after him. The only reason he’d agree to this was to get her off her back, perhaps if he got it over with now she’d stop bothering him during the day. After all, he had more important things to worry about.

Marianne cleared her throat, “We’re supposed to get more rain tomorrow.”

Burnside looked at her, unimpressed, “If you think I’m going to discuss the weather with you than you’re sorely mistaken.”

“What would you like to talk about, sir?” she said, almost chirpily.

The elevator shuddered to a stop on the ground floor and the doors slid open again. Burnside stepped out first, leading her toward the doors. The hallways were dark, the building seemingly empty save for the two of them.

“I’m perfectly open to anything,” she continued, catching up briskly to walk abreast with him. “I’m well-versed in tennis, chess, and classic literature –”

“I’m not interested in casual conversation,” said Burnside, staring straight ahead.

“What are you interested in, sir?” she said. They’d reached the doors. Burnside pulled out his pass and both he and Marianne were waved through by the doorman, stepping onto the cool and still-damp night air of the outside street. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you doing anything but D-Ops work. What are your other interests?”

“Being the Director of Operations is my interest,” said Burnside. The street was relatively empty. A cab sped by, wheels grinding against the wet pavement. Pools of light spilled into the darkness around lampposts.

“That can’t be all,” said Marianne. Burnside could tell she was trying to catch his eye but he resolutely stared straight ahead. “Not even gardening or going to the cinema on Saturday afternoons?”

“If you want to talk about gardening I suggest you talk to Peele,” said Burnside.

Marianne laughed, a sound that echoed clear and bright off the wet brick buildings surrounding the empty street. “I’ve talked all I care too with the Deputy Chief about his plants – I was his PA once, remember.”

“Ah, yes,” said Burnside. Mist steamed off the pavement from the recent rain. The moon hung in the sky, shrouded in clouds as to give it an almost ghostly appearance.

Marianne continued, “I fancy you’ve got a bookshelf full of tragic poetry – Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps? “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’.”

Burnside caught himself before he smiled. He cleared his throat. “I think you’ll find that your tall, dark, brooding hero of your fantasies is far from reality.”

Marianne pressed relentless forward, a grin in her voice, “Certainly not Dickinson but perhaps Eliot. I can see you mooning over The Waste Land.”

Mooning?” Burnside sneered.

Marianne laughed again. She was being silly now. Silly, foolish, inconsequential girl and Burnside had only agreed to this to get her off his back. Besides, it would delay his imminent return to his apartment, perhaps he could return to the office after shaking her off at the restaurant –

They’d reached the glowing Chinese character sign by then. The streets were busier in that part of the city and couples arm in arm passed by and the occasional pack of schoolchildren no-doubt roaming the streets without their parents’ permission.

Burnside pulled open the door, the bells overhead jingling, and stepped inside. Marianne caught the door around the edge before he had a chance to release it. He led her to his usual table. It wasn’t crowded. One or two corner booths were filled. Burnside took a cursory glance at all the faces.

Burnside slid into his seat. Marianne took the seat across from him, pulling off her coat.

“It’s rather quaint,” she said, head swiveling on her neck as she looked around, hair swinging so that it caught on the silver loops dangling from her ears that Burnside hadn’t realized she’d been wearing until he’d been forced to face her head on.

The usual waiter stopped by their table for their orders. He addressed Burnside first with a knowing smile, “Coca-Cola?”

“Thank you,” said Burnside.

“You come here often?” said Marianne after the waiter had taken her order and left.

“Occasionally,” he answered. “Only when the thought of another frozen dinner becomes unbearable.”

Marianne smiled, “I’m afraid I don’t know how to cook, either. It was one of those feminine necessities I was so fond of skipping over as a girl. I can’t sew or knit, either.”

“And here I thought you could do everything,” said Burnside, apparently with just enough hostility left out of his voice that Marianne’s smile stayed fixed to her lips.

The food arrived in a matter of minutes. Marianne took a sip of her drink, “You’re worried about Mike, aren’t you? The operation?”

“Mike can look after himself,” said Burnside impatiently. He didn’t want to talk about the operation, or anything to do with SIS. He didn’t know what he did want to talk about.

“So could Willie,” said Marianne, smile dropping from her lips.

He certainly didn’t want to talk about Willie.

Burnside flicked his wrist as if shooing away an irritating fly. “What about you?” he said abruptly, “Are you still entertaining delusional visions of grandeur about joining the Sandbaggers?”

“I don’t know how delusional they are,” she said primly.

Burnside snorted.

Marianne frowned “Why are you so against me joining the Special Section, sir? Is it because you don’t think I could do the work or you wouldn’t want me to?”

“It doesn’t matter my reasons,” he answered. “I simply won’t have you as a Sandbagger.”

He almost told her I won’t have another female agent in the Special Section for as long as I’m D-Ops. He was afraid her answer might have been well, that might not be very long, then.

She didn’t look at him, cutting a piece of meat on her plate. “I can apply directly to the field school, you know.”

“Yes, but without direct referral from the Operations Director you have a very slim chance of ever making it passed a Station.” Burnside took a drink of his coke.

She didn’t answer. Burnside wondered if he had hurt her feelings or if, indeed, it was even possible to hurt Marianne Straker’s feelings.

“What do you want to leave for, anyway?” said Burnside testily. “You’ve got a good job, make a good salary – very little less than a Sandbagger makes, even.”

“You don’t think I should aspire to a better position in my work?” she said calculatingly. “You didn’t want Diane to leave either – what’s so wrong with women doing what they think they should?”

“You know it isn’t that,” said Burnside rather sharply. He clenched his teeth, checking his voice, “It’s bloody hard to find a replacement PA, that’s all. I try to hang on to them for as long as possible.”

“It wouldn’t be so bloody hard finding one if you didn’t try to dictate everything we did with our lives,” said Marianne brazenly.

Burnside rolled his eyes, bypassing the chopsticks as he always did and scooping up a bit of noodles and pork onto his fork. Mercifully, Marianne fell silent. The door opened with the sound of tinkling bells and Burnside glanced up, looking back down when he realized it was an anonymous young couple coming through the door arm in arm.

“Who did you think it would be?” said Marianne.

Burnside cleared his throat, “The Deputy Chief came in once, I’d rather not be caught by Peele again – or anytime for that matter.”

“Caught?” said Marianne with a teasing smile, “which secretary were you with then?”

“You know that wasn’t what I meant,” said Burnside.

“Oh, really?” said Marianne, adopting an annoyingly playful lilt to her voice, “Afraid someone from the office will start shameful rumors about you and your PA?”

She was joking. Burnside knew she was joking. He tried to reassure himself that she was joking. “Weren’t you ever afraid of shameful rumors when you went out with Willie?” he said nastily.

Marianne’s eyes dropped to her half-finished plate of food. Her fingers toyed with her napkin. Burnside looked at the ceiling, breathing slowly.

Marianne, with her face still turned away from Burnside, said softly, lips barely moving, “I…never cared about Willie the way he wanted me to, you know. It always felt wrong, somehow, saying so when he was so charming. I don’t know whether or not saying it now makes it even worse.”

Somehow they were talking about Willie again.

“It’s…so strange to think of him gone,” she continued. “I keep expecting him to walk through the doors of the office at any moment. That perhaps he’s been in Malta all this time and is simply taking a late flight home –”

“Willie is dead,” said Burnside flatly. “It’s about time you accepted it.”

“Have you accepted it?” she asked, catching his eye. He wanted to look away, but didn’t, because he didn’t want her to know how much her clear brown eyes stung peering into his own.

She looked a bit like Laura, angular face and large brown eyes – Laura’s had been larger. He didn’t like Marianne’s hair; the bangs were too severe. The freckles on her left cheek were distracting.

“Of course,” he said brusquely. “I’ve lost plenty of Sandbaggers. The shock wears off as a matter of course.”

Marianne looked down. Burnside swallowed, finding his throat curiously dry. He wondered if she believed him.

She smiled slightly bitterly, “There’s the fundamental difference between you and Willie Caine, I believe.”

“Oh?” said Burnside, raising his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Marianne continued, “you dislike violence because of all the bother it is clearing it up afterward and Willie disliked violence because he disliked pain, and seeing others in pain”

“And you believe I relish it?” Burnside snapped.

“Accepting it as a necessary part of our job isn’t the same as relishing it,” said Marianne levelly.

“Willie could accept it,” said Burnside.

“Not in the same way you can,” said Marianne. “Willie would go out of his way to avoid violence, even if it was the easiest course of action, resorting to it only when it was the absolute only course left open. You, on the other, accept it as the easiest course immediately and follow through with no qualms because you understand you will ultimately save time and effort –”

“I’m not interested in listening to an analysis of mine and Willie’s mentalities, fundamental differences or otherwise,” Burnside cut her off.

Marianne’s eyebrows rose, “I notice you don’t deny it.”

“Not denying something is not the same thing as admitting its truth,” said Burnside.

“Isn’t it?” said Marianne shrewdly. “I have a feeling it is. In this case, at least. Even if you don’t want to believe it, yourself.”

“What makes you so certain?” said Burnside sneeringly.

“Perhaps it’s because I happen to agree with you,” said Marianne, cutting her meat with precise, rhythmic motions of her knife. “Willie’s principles were certainly agreeable, if not slightly idealistic. Frankly, I never could understand how a man like him had gotten into the Special Section.”

“Willie was a damn good Sandbagger,” Burnside snapped.

Marianne’s smile dug into her cheeks. “I never said he wasn’t.” She paused to take a bite of pork. “Besides, it seems like Willie’s way of thinking is becoming once again popular with the higher powers. Perhaps we’ll see a reappearance of his ideals. Then again, as I’m inclined to think, perhaps there really isn’t any place for quixotic thinking in the Special Section, no matter what the politicians would like to believe.”

“Willie was never one to go chasing after windmills,” said Burnside.

“No,” said Marianne thoughtfully, “but he’d have liked to, I’m sure, if his common sense hadn’t always been so adamantly against it.”

“Psychoanalysis is another hobby of yours, I see,” said Burnside scathingly. “I think you missed your true calling in life. While we’re on the subject, what’s your ruling on Mike Wallace, since you’re so keen on sharing your observations?”

Marianne hesitated, “Mike’s young –”

Burnside cut her off, “Don’t forget, I’ve read both your files. I happen to know Mike is older than you.”

“Of course, sir,” said Marianne hastily, “But what I mean to say is, well, I’ve only had a chance to observe you and Willie when you were both older and had gone a few rounds with the uglier side of life. Mike, well, he’s still relatively new to the subject –”

“You don’t mean to say you think he’s an innocent?” said Burnside, rolling his eyes. “He may have been the baby Sandbagger for a time, but no longer.”

“But that’s exactly what I mean, sir,” said Marianne. Her eyes were glistening with something akin to exhilaration. Burnside resolved to get the girl more work to keep her busier, if this was the stuff she came up with when she had free time to think. “He may have been an innocent once, but certainly isn’t one anymore, and getter further away every moment. Honestly, he makes me wonder what exactly you were like when you were his age, probably very similar I should think.”

Burnside snorted, “I don’t like to think I was every quite so young as Mike Wallace.”

“Oh no?” said Marianne, “But perhaps you just can’t remember anymore. The sort of jobs Sandbaggers have to do – it changes them, perhaps sometimes makes them unrecognizable even to themselves. I’m sure during your time as a Sandbagger – even your time as D-Ops – you’ve had to do and see things that have had an effect on you –”

“Turned me into a bitter, angry old man, you mean?” Burnside interrupted.

Marianne opened her mouth, perhaps to say you said it, not I, but apparently thought better of it and instead said, “For instance, I was just a month or two started in the service when I heard about Robert Judd –”

“You mean Sandbagger Three who was murdered by Lutara by having his stomach split open?”

“Yes, sir,” said Marianne. She seemed unfazed by the gruesome image. “You were Head of the Special Section then, weren’t you? Judd was about Mike’s age, wasn’t he? That must have been difficult, watching him sent to South Africa never to return when you, yourself, might have elected to go. It must have had some kind of effect on you – that sort of helplessness always does.”

Burnside ran his tongue over his teeth, clenching and unclenching his fists. He didn’t understand why he didn’t simply rebuff her and walk away. “I thought we were discussing Mike Wallace.”

She looked at him, eyes almost teasing, “Oh, but I am still discussing Mike, sir.”

Burnside raised his eyebrows in question, “Then you think Willie Caine’s death may have had a similar effect on Mike, is that it?”

“Perhaps,” said Marianne evenly.

Burnside shook his head, “And even when you say you understand all this, you insist on wanting to join the Special Section? I’d have thought your observations would have warned you off.”

“Oh no, sir,” said Marianne, eyes still gleaming. “Quite the contrary. I happen to think it quite thrilling.”

“Death and pain and violence, yes, all very thrilling,” Burnside scoffed. “I don’t think Mike’s the only one who could learn a thing or two about the cruel realities of the job.”

Marianne was still smiling, a strange, fixed sort of smile, “Don’t you feel the same way, though, sir?” she said deliberately. “You may not relish the consequences but you certainly enjoy the process, otherwise you wouldn’t have stuck with it for so long. Or be so unwilling to give it up, even now.”

Burnside frowned. He narrowed his eyes. Marianne wasn’t looking at him anymore, but coyly down at her empty dish.

“It’s late,” Burnside said abruptly. “I’d better be getting home.”

“Of course, sir,” said Marianne, grabbing her coat, standing, and slinging it over her shoulders. She seemed to understand that the conversation was now over, and that, in fact, the conversation may never have taken place.

Marianne followed him out of the restaurant silently. One of the neon letters in the sign was flickering, the sound of electric buzzing filled the air. She looked at him, smile once again tugging at the corner of her lips, hands in her pockets. For a moment he wondered if she expected him to walk her home.

“Good-night, then,” Burnside said, clearing his throat. He thought of all the things he was supposed to say, all along the lines of thank you for the evening and it was a pleasure, none of which would have been true, of course.

“Thank you for the company,” she said.

“Not at all,” he turned to leave but Marianne reached out to touch his arm almost tentatively, as though afraid his coat sleeve might burn her fingers. “I could come back for drinks….” She looked innocent and very young, if not a little coy. Burnside raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t drink, Miss Straker,” and left her bathed in the light of a lamppost, soon to be swallowed by the shadows of the street.

He walked down the sidewalk, footsteps echoing off the pavement. He wondered if he should go back to his office, if perhaps he could avoid going to his flat for a few hours more, if perhaps he could just continue to walk. It would keep him awake, at least. It was strange; he hadn’t slept for almost thirty-six hours but somehow he wasn’t at all tired.

He recollected that the last time he’d strayed from his flat at night he’d ended up in the hospital with a mild concussion.

He waved down a cab and was dropped off at his building. He picked up the mail in his postbox, which was quite full. He remembered that, since leaving for Malta and returning, he hadn’t been to his flat for nearly a week.

He took the elevator. It was the same elevator boy it had always been, for the five years Burnside had lived there. Somehow he’d never given much thought to saying hello. He’d moved in just after the finalization of his and Belinda’s divorce. She’d kept their old flat, of course, and the television, and the cat. He’d always hated that stupid cat.

He left the elevator at his floor, fumbled in the pockets of his coat for his key, swung open the door and flicked on the light as he walked in. His sitting room and hallway and the kitchen at the end were illuminated by the sudden rush of light. He dumped the heap of mail onto the table standing behind the couch, where he used to keep a picture of Belinda, and then a picture of Laura. Burnside didn’t keep any photographs in the place anymore.

He contemplated what he’d do for the rest of the evening, perhaps catch up on some reading. Marianne was right, he did read Poe. But not Eliot. He couldn’t stand Eliot. Maybe, if he was lucky, he’d be able to stay awake for the rest of the night, or if he did fall asleep he’d sleep on the couch. He slept on the couch most nights. He didn’t like to sleep in his bed not for…nearly two years now. He didn’t like to go into his bedroom at all most nights. She still had sweaters hung in his closet.

He crossed the room and picked up the phone, wringing the duty-ops officer.

“D-Ops, at home,” he said tautly and then hung up.

Chapter Text

“And I’ve had enough of ghosts; haven’t you, Willie?”
– Neil Burnside to Willie Caine, Episode “Enough of Ghosts”

“You know damn well what I’m saying is true. You’ve been looking for lost causes for the last year and a half.”
“This isn’t a lost cause.”
“Oh yeah? What is it then? A subtle form of suicide?”
“We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
– Jeff Ross to Neil Burnside, Episode “Opposite Numbers”

“Where in the blazes have you been?” Burnside barked when Mike strolled into the office at quarter-after-eleven, looking infuriatingly casual, as if he was not aware that Burnside had been calling down to the hutch every fifteen minutes trying to find out where his last bloody Sandbagger had disappeared to, wanting to go over the operation again, double and triple check facts, examine documents, drill him on the plan –

“I’m sorry, sir, I went to see Mrs. Caine,” Mike answered.

“Who?” Burnside snapped.

“Willie’s mother, sir. I only thought, since I wasn’t going to be able to make it to the service….” Mike’s voice trailed into static, flat silence.

Burnside gritted his teeth. “Don’t you ever go somewhere the morning before an operation and not tell me about it again.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike, face quite expressionless, hands clasped neatly behind his back. “It won’t happen again.”

He seemed to have again adopted his usual formal bearing as opposed to open disdain. Burnside wasn’t sure he preferred it to the latter.

“Alright then,” Burnside snapped, turning to face the window, looking out to the street below and the speeding taxis and cars and pedestrians on the sidewalks. “You’re all set, are you? No last minute concerns.”

“No, sir. I’m to take the one-fifty plane from Heathrow. I’ll be in Beirut by seven by the time here, where I’ll meet Harold Vane, Head of Station there.”

“And who will Mr. Vane be meeting at the airport?”

“Monsieur Gerald Plourde,” said Mike promptly, “French businessman come to Beirut to clear out his failing company.”

Burnside nodded, not turning around. “Alright, then, you’d better check in to Missions Planning, let them iron out any remaining details.”

“Yes, sir,” said Mike. Burnside heard the squeak of his shoes as he walked toward the door.

Still facing the window, Burnside spoke before he heard the door open, “And, Mike – get it done fast but get it done well. And be careful, will you?”

He could feel Mike’s eyes on the back of his head. “Of course, sir.”

“It’s hard enough having to deal with only one Sandbagger; I haven’t any desire to have to contend with none.”

Burnside didn’t go down to Missions Planning to see Mike off. He stayed in his office, hesitant to venture anywhere else because that would mean passing Marianne at her desk, who would undoubtedly want to discuss the night before under some misguided assumption that somehow their work relationship had changed because of an hour in a restaurant. He’d come in early enough to miss her prompt arrival at eight o’clock. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so terrible if the bloody girl wasn’t so punctual, so exact in everything she bloody did –

The intercom buzzed.

“Yes, what is it?”

“Mr. Hugh Morgan to see you, sir.”

Bloody, interfering man.

“Alright,” Burnside snapped, “send him in.”

He didn’t bother standing to greet Morgan when the door swung open and he stepped in. He nodded politely at Burnside, smile fixed almost robotically to his face, blue eyes scanning the room from one corner to the other, probably rearranging the furniture already, Burnside thought bitterly.

“Burnside,” said Morgan.

“Morgan,” said Burnside levelly.

“Your Sandbagger’s just gone out then, has he?” said Morgan.

“Yes, he’ll be landing in Lebanon a little after supper,” said Burnside.

“Dangerous sort of operation, isn’t it? Any time you arm a Sandbagger I expect it is.”

“Every operation is dangerous in its own right,” said Burnside. “There’s an understanding that, if something should go wrong, it’s an agent’s responsibility to disassociate themselves with anything to do with SIS, and they’ll be on their own from then on.”

“It’s a lonely business, eh?” said Morgan.

“Indeed,” said Burnside levelly. “I’m sorry, did you come to see me for anything specific?”

“Oh no,” said Morgan casually. “I just thought I’d come up and see what exactly the Operations Director does when he sends one of his men out on a mission. I’ve always been in Stations, you see, and it’s very interesting to see just how they run things here in London.”

“I’d have assumed you’d want to sightsee somewhere other than our drab collection of offices, home sweet home and all that,” said Burnside, perfectly civilly, watching the older man’s every movement carefully. “I presume you’re still here on C’s invitation?”

Morgan hooked his fingers in his belt loops. “Oh yes,” said Morgan, still smiling, “I’m still here by Gibbs’ request.”

“Do you like what you see?” said Burnside, waving his hand vaguely so as to encompass merely his office or perhaps the whole building. “Anything you should change if you were transferred here permanently?”

Morgan raised his eyebrows, “I hardly dare to even think of it.”

“You aren’t anxious to leave Vienna, then?” said Burnside.

“I shouldn’t say I was anxious, no,” said Morgan, “Neither am I unwilling, of course. Perfectly prepared to the serve SIS in whatever way they want me to.”

Burnside smiled, lips stiff, “Of course.”

After Morgan left, Burnside stood from his desk and walked brusquely into his outer office.

“I’ll be with the C,” he told Marianne before she had a chance to glance up from her typing.

“Wait, sir!” Burnside whirled around to face her. “I meant to tell you, C will be out until four. Has an appointment with the Secretary of –”

“I’ll be with the Deputy Chief, then!” Burnside interrupted her, and swept impatiently from the room.

He sent the elevator directly up to the sixth floor and paced in the outer office while waiting for Peele’s PA to ring him through.

His stomach was twisting with familiar nerves. He’d used to get them right before an operation when he, himself, had been a Sandbagger. Somehow they had gotten worse when he’d become D-Ops.

“You can go in now, sir,” Peele’s secretary, a young woman with blond hair and perfectly manicured nails and who probably hadn’t an ounce of pluck in her whole being, cut into his scattered thoughts.

He nodded sharply in acknowledgement and the girl winced, apparently terrified of him even when he didn’t speak. He pushed through the door into Peele’s office. Peele looked up as he entered, lined face wary.

“Ah, hello, Neil, what brings you up here?” His voice was perfectly hospitable. His eyes looked cold. Burnside couldn’t help but remember the last time he’d come face to face with Peele, when he’d had quite a bit to say and wanted an attentive audience and moments before Willie had been stacking a deck of cards into a house.

“Good afternoon, sir –” Burnside began.

“Sorry to hear about Willie,” Peele cut him off, “A nasty shock, I’ll admit. No one was expecting it to end as it did. He was an excellent Sandbagger, the Service will be very sorry to see him gone –”

“Sir, I’m not here to talk about Willie Caine.”

Peele raised his eyebrows. “The only aspect of Malta I’m willing to discuss is Willie Caine.”

“I’m not here about SALT, either,” said Burnside flatly. “Nor how you lied to Len Shephard about keeping what really happened with Filatov to yourself.”

“I am in no position to have to justify myself to you, Neil,” said Peele stiffly.

“No,” said Burnside, “In the end I suppose the only person one has to justify themselves to is oneself.”

“I suppose you should know all about that,” said Peele coldly. “Now, what is it you wanted? I’m a busy man and don’t intend to waste my day entertaining your whims.”

Burnside took a deep breath. He hadn’t meant to open aggressions so early, nor so blatantly. “I wanted to ask you about Hugh Morgan – ideally I’d have discussed it with C, but he won’t be in until later, and it really can’t wait.”

“Hugh Morgan?” said Peele, “You mean the man up from Vienna Station? What about him did you want to discuss?”

Burnside felt like shouting in frustration. His jaw was beginning to ache from clenching it so tightly. “For one thing, what’s he bloody doing here?”

“I’m sure I don’t know anything about it, Neil,” said Peele in aggravating superiority. “I hadn’t any idea he was even here until this morning.”

“He introduced himself to you, I suppose?” said Burnside scathingly, “Already wrapping himself around everyone’s fingers.”

“Do come to the point, Neil. I can’t see what Morgan has to do with anything.”

“Then you don’t know he’s been dogging my footsteps for the past day and a half? He just came up to my office as if he was on a bloody tour of the building!”

Peele folded his hands carefully on his desk. “Morgan told me he was here to see how we run things, get a look around, report back to Vienna with any changes they’d like to make to have their Station run smoother –”

“Then he gave you the same story about coming up for holiday, did he?” Burnside interrupted. “We both know he’s here by C’s express invitation.”

“Yes, well, C is perfectly within his right to invite anyone into the building he so pleases,” said Peele. “I’m certainly not going to object.”

“Well, is there anything you can do to bloody get him off my back?” Burnside demanded. “I’m trying to run a special operation and having Morgan looking over my shoulder ever moment isn’t helping anything.”

Peele looked at his desk, “About the special operation, Neil – I don’t know what you said to C to make him approve it, but I’ll have you know that I’m very displeased. I don’t think you ought to be mounting any more operations so soon after what you did in Malta, and perhaps never again.”

“So is that what Morgan’s really here for?” Burnside spat, fingers curling into fists to stop them from shaking. “He’s trying to get a feel for my job?”

“I told you before,” said Peele patiently, if icily, “I hadn’t any idea Morgan was coming.”

Burnside was hardly listening. Without any conscious decision he had begun to pace, footsteps making a dull, thumping beat on the worn carpet. “Morgan’s fifty-five years old, and what – been in the service for thirty-six years? And he’s only made it as a Station Number Two?”

“In Vienna,” said Peele coldly.

“It doesn’t matter where,” Burnside snapped. “C’s been in the service for not much longer yet he’s Chief of SIS.”

“What is your point, Neil?” said Peele impatiently.

“Well, perhaps Morgan has neither ambition nor drive – hardly a man you’d want in as Operations Director.”

“It can be dangerous, having too much drive in an Operations Director,” said Peele.

“It can be dangerous, having a man with too little,” Burnside replied, coming to a stop to face Peele directly.

“I’m afraid there’s not much you can do to stop it, Neil.”

Burnside breathed deeply, trying to keep his voice in check. “You can’t replace me, sir, not in the middle of a special operation.”

“Yes,” said Peele flatly, tone of dismissal evident in his voice. “Yes. That’s very true.”

“Ah, sir –” said Marianne as soon as Burnside walked in, standing from her desk with a blue folder clasped in one hand.

“Yes, what is it?” Burnside snapped before she had a chance to continue.

She jerked to a halt, evidently taken aback at his tone, evidently expecting all smiles and warm conversation after the night before. “It’s only – I’ve got a call from the Field School, sir. They haven’t got anyone available –”

“Just what I need, more good news,” said Burnside.

“I hadn’t finished, sir,” Marianne pressed on, handing over the folder. “They pointed us in the direction of Arthur Page, Number Two in Brussels. Apparently he’s just put in his application of transfer – wants to join the Special Section.”

“He’s another bloody idiot then?” said Burnside, snatching the folder and giving a cursory glance to the forms within.

“Thirty-three years old,” Marianne continued, “single, been in the Service for six years, and happens to be in London on leave –”said Marianne. “And – ah – the Deputy Chief’s endorsed him, sir.”

“Yes, well, Peele would have, wouldn’t he?” said Burnside bitterly.

“My only concern is how Mike will react,” Marianne continued, “you bringing in a somewhat senior officer when he’s only just been promoted to Head of the Special Section, might get the idea you’re trying to replace him –”

“Yes, well, I doubt Page would like to be brought in as subordinate to Mike,” said Burnside.

“True, sir,” Marianne continued. “Otherwise he seems very capable. Intelligent, very fit, speaks French and Russian –”

“I’ll be the judge of his capability, thank you,” Burnside snapped.

“Of course, sir,” said Marianne, a note of surprise in her voice.

“Alright then, anything else you needed to tell me?” said Burnside, closing the folder and beginning to walk toward his office door.

“Only – well,” Marianne began. “Well, I wasn’t sure – seeing that Mike’s en route and you haven’t much to do now but wait – I didn’t know if perhaps you’d like to go to Sussex, see Willie’s mother before Saturday –”

“I haven’t any time for that now,” said Burnside, not looking at Marianne. “Besides, it isn’t as though a visit from me will bring her son back.”

“Yes, that may be true, sir,” Marianne insisted. “But I’m sure she’d appreciate the sentiment. You’ll be able to give her some measure of comfort –”

“The answer is no,” Burnside said fiercely, whirling around so abruptly Marianne started. “There’s no comfort I can possibly give her.”

Marianne’s face hardened. “You don’t want to see her, do you?”

“What on earth do you mean?” Burnside snapped.

“You keep making excuses,” Marianne continued calmly. “You’re afraid of facing Willie’s mother –”

“That will be quite enough, Marianne. I’ll take no more of your cheek.”

“I notice you’re once again reluctant to out and out deny it –”

“That is enough, Miss Straker!” Burnside shouted. Marianne raised her eyebrows, clearly unaware of just how hard the blood was throbbing in Burnside’s head.

“Let us get one thing straight,” Burnside said tersely, his throat tight. “Allowing myself to go out to dinner with you last night was a gross misjudgment. Nothing has changed in our relationship. You are still my secretary, still my subordinate, and I expect you to treat me with the same level of respect I have always demanded.”

Marianne blinked, mouth falling open partially to reveal her top row of even, perfectly spaced teeth, precise as everything about her was.

“And another thing,” Burnside continued, words flowing off his tongue as though a dam had been broken, “There will be no more late night suppers, no more candid conversations, and no more of your petty attempts at psychoanalysis. You are my PA. You will do well to remember that your employment rests within my hands.” She stared at him, heavily lidded eyes slightly widened.

“Furthermore,” Burnside continued sharply, “your childish dreams are not only immature, but completely unrealistic and I shall no longer allow myself to tolerate them. I shall do my best to impede your every attempt at becoming a Sandbagger for as long as I have the power to do so. Is that clear?”

Marianne swallowed. She opened her mouth but no sound spilled from her lips. She cleared her throat.

“Perfectly, sir.”

“Good.” Burnside spun on his heel, stalking toward his office. “Do not to disturb me unless it’s absolutely necessary. I shan’t be seeing anyone so if Jeff Ross decides to show up tell him to get the hell out.”

“Monsieur Plourde,” said Harold Vane, a short, squat man with a lined face and wire-rimmed glasses. He extended a hand to Mike, who switched his case to his left hand in order to grasp Vane’s with his right. “Welcome. There’s a car waiting outside. Please, let me take your bag.”

Merci,” said Mike. Allowing Vane to relieve him of his case and following him through the sparsely occupied airport terminal. Outside, night had settled across the streets. A motorcycle revved by, kicking up a cloud of dust illuminated by a streetlamp.

Vane led Mike to a waiting car. After the doors had been firmly shut Vane said, “We believe they’re holding Moore in Raouché. We haven’t discovered the exact location, but one of our contacts over the Green Line trailed a man believed to be involved in the kidnapping. We can narrow it down to a two-mile radius.”

“There hasn’t been any ransom set yet?” said Mike.

“No word,” said Vane. “Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken them this long. Perhaps the kidnappers are more amateur than we thought.”

“Or it could be that they’re cleverer than we thought,” said Mike. “They may be hoping to throw us off the scent by delaying.”

“True,” said Vane. “Either way, it’ll be dangerous. The best way of infiltration will be a boat around the coast and then up the cliffs of Raouché. I hope you know how to climb.”

“I’ll cope,” said Mike tightly. “Who will I be working with?”

“A man called Dali, smuggler. It’s all a bit under-handed, you understand,” Vane answered, taking his glasses off to wipe the lenses on a corner of his shirt. “I can’t say I’m very happy about it, bowing to work with such sordid characters. Too bad you couldn’t bring a second man of your own –”

“Yes, well, we’d have liked to,” said Mike, “but currently I’m the only one available.”

“Oh?” said Vane, but when it became clear Mike was not going to elaborate, he continued, “You understand that all Dali will be able to do is drop you at the base of the cliff? After all, he’s not exactly trained for Special Operation business.”

“Don’t worry,” said Mike, “I’ll be handling all the heavy work. All I need is someone to keep the motor running.”

Vane nodded briskly. “I thought you could scout out the territory tomorrow evening. Dali’s agreed to bring you.”

“Sounds alright,” Mike answered. “Hopefully by then we’ll have a more definite idea of just where they’re holding Moore – and just who “they” are. If so, I’d like to plan on getting Moore out Saturday evening.”

“Don’t you think you’d better take a few extra days?” said Vane uncertainly. “Make sure everything’s as secure as possible –”

“My director wants a fast job,” said Mike. “So I can get back to London and under his thumb as quickly as possible.”

The car began to slow in front of a building illuminated by lights from the inside. “Ah, here we are now. I expect you’ll want to refresh yourself before –”

“Actually,” Mike interrupted, “I’ll need to ring home, let them know I’ve arrived safely. They tend to get nervous when I’ve gone too long without checking up. Afterwards I’ll start right up in working out the details. If we’re to move in two nights, we’ll have a lot of planning to do.”

“Of course,” said Vane, nodding.

Mike smiled in an attempt to bring some sort of levity to the situation, “When you’re a Sandbagger, Mr. Vane, I’ve found there’s very little time for freshening up.”

Burnside snatched the red phone up before it had half begun to ring, putting it to his ear and barking, “D-Ops – what is it?”

“The ops-room, sir. There’s been a ransom set for Moore. Could you come down?”

“Be right there,” said Burnside, setting down the phone with a harsh click, standing and walking out of his office, not glancing at Marianne’s empty desk. It was passed eleven o’clock. He’d let her go home early in lieu of having her there to nag him about drinking a warm glass of milk before bed.

The ops-room was a diluted flurry of activity. Only a handful of officers were on hand, answering phones and examining maps but mostly flicking half-hearted through blue and pink folders. Burnside walked briskly over to the desk where Stanley Bonham and Bruce Copeland were waiting for him tensely.

“What is it?” said Burnside when he got there.

“Like I said,” Stanley began, “there’s been a ransom set for Moore – 600,000 pounds. And his kidnappers have given themselves a name.”

“Not the PLO?” said Burnside.

“No, sir,” said Bruce. “They’re calling themselves the Organization of the Free People.”

“What do we know about them?”

“Not much, sir,” Bruce continued, shaking his head. “They’re possibly an off-shoot of the PLO, but it could be that Iran, even Syria is backing them.”

Burnside cursed, “Well find out as much as you can. Mike needs to know who he’s dealing with if he’s going to make a move in the next few days.”

“Then he’s all set?” said Stanley.

“Yes,” said Burnside. “I talked to him a few hours ago. He’ll scout out the territory tomorrow evening provided he gets our word.”

“We’ll do the best we can, sir,” said Bruce.

“You’d better do a great deal better than that,” Burnside snapped, and left the ops-room door swinging as he marched out of the room.

It was two o’clock when Burnside shuffled into his apartment. He fell into a chair and lit a cigarette. He flicked the television on but all that burst to life were lines of crackling static following the last few, trailing notes of the National Anthem and he shut it off again.

He shuffled through the collection of bills and letters he’d brought up from his postbox. On the top of heap was an envelope addressed from Karen Milner, no doubt a generic condolence card and Burnside fought the urge to crumple it into a ball and toss it into the nearest bin. He certainly didn’t plan on opening it. He wondered for a moment how she could have heard so quickly, but then remembered Jeff was probably still in contact with her.

It was four o’clock when he roused himself from his chair, back and neck aching. He couldn’t remember if he’d slept at all, but his shirt and pants were horribly crumpled and he took a cold shower before leaving for the office again.

Burnside got there early enough to pass the cleaning lady on her way out and he tried to make himself a cup of coffee but the bloody machine wouldn’t work. The sun was just beginning to peak its rays over the tops of the surrounding buildings when Burnside sat at his desk, bracing his head in his hands.

He didn’t know whether or not he fell into a doze, but he started back to awareness when he heard the crack of knuckles on his door.

“What do you want?” he snapped.

Marianne peaked her head into the room, followed by her hand which held a cup of steaming coffee on a saucer. “Coffee, sir?”

“About time.”

Marianne left the coffee on his desk. She didn’t ask him how he was feeling, or how long he’d been there, if he had gone home at all, or gotten any sleep. The girl was getting better already. He found her silence frosty and unnerving, and said to break the quiet, “You said Arthur Page is in London?”

“The prospective Sandbagger?” she answered. “Yes, sir.”

“I’ll see him this afternoon,” said Burnside, “Might as well do something worthwhile.”

“Yes, sir,” said Marianne.

He took a sip of coffee and almost burned his tongue. He cursed under breath. Marianne watched him impassively.

“And call Jeff Ross,” Burnside said aggressively. “Tell him I want to meet him for lunch.”

“Yes, sir,” said Marianne, a subtle edge to her voice. “Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, that will be all,” Burnside sneered.

She closed the door with a sharp crack behind her. Burnside took another drink of coffee. It was a dreadful brew. He wondered if she’d done it on purpose.

“The Organization of the Free People,” said Jeff contemplatively after bighting the tip off a french-fry.

“Yes,” said Burnside. “Have you heard anything about them?”

“Honestly,” said Jeff, “there are so many militias in Lebanon right now, all of them getting in each other’s way that it gets pretty hard to keep track of them all.”

Burnside braced his elbows on the grease-covered tabletop.

“Any information might help. Mike’s scheduled to start moving tonight,” said Burnside. “I shouldn’t like him stumbling about blindly. We’re in enough of a mess already.”

“Alright, well,” said Jeff, “If this really is the same splinter group I’m thinking of, then I remember hearing about an incident about a month ago, an Israeli diplomat, Amir Dahan and his wife had gone missing, this organization took credit a few days later, just like they’re doing with Moore, and demanded a ransom.”

“Yes, and what happened?” said Burnside, taking a drink from his glass of coke, already diluted from the melting ice-cubes.

“Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t bode too well for Moore – or for Mike, either – about a week after the ransom was paid, Dahan and his wife showed up in a garbage bin in a back alley. They’d already been dead for almost ten days, approximately the same time the ransom note made an appearance.”

Burnside nodded. His throat felt tight, “Then there’s probably very little chance that Moore is still alive.”

“Yeah,” Jeff agreed. He swallowed a bite of hamburger. “Listen, Neil – I know it’s not my place to interfere with SIS initiatives –”

“It’s never stopped you before,” said Burnside.

“Yeah, well, it’s not like you ever listen to me, anyway,” said Jeff. “But are you really sure bringing Mike into this was a good idea? I mean, you could easily get the kid killed. If Moore really is already dead then –”

“Stay out of it, Jeff,” Burnside cut him off.

“Neil, I know what you’re hoping to pull off here, but is it really worth putting Mike in the line of fire?”

“It’s not my place to tell Mike what he is and is not capable of,” said Burnside icily. “Besides, it’s very likely his job is on the line, as well. I’m not going to turn around and tell him he can’t fight for it.”

Jeff frowned. For a moment there was silence, broken only by the ring of the cash register and the soft pop music playing in the background of chatting patrons’ voices.

“So,” said Jeff casually, if not deliberately changing the subject, “this Hugh Morgan, guy –he’s up from Vienna, isn’t he? Short term trip?”

“Please,” said Burnside, kneading his fingers into his temples. “I’m having a bad enough day without having to think about Morgan.”

“Ah ha,” said Jeff with a bit too much understanding, nodding slowly.

“What did you bring him up for?” Burnside snapped.

Jeff hesitated for a moment before replying, “It’s only that I got a call from him earlier this morning. Wants to get together for drinks sometime. Says it’d be interesting to get the point of view of London from an American.”

Burnside scowled, “Beginning to work his tentacles around you as well, is he?”

Jeff shrugged, “Look on the bright side, Neil. At least he seems partial to the idea of the Special Relationship. SIS could have gotten a fix for someone who thought he should be meeting MI5 for lunch instead of me. I remember that was one of your complaints about Gibbs.”

“You expect me to be happy that my would-be successor will someday be munching on french-fries and hamburgers at lunchtime instead of me?”

“You can still see me for lunch, Neil. McDonalds isn’t exactly exclusive.”

“There’s more the Special Relationship than McDonalds, you know.”

Jeff smiled, “Yeah, well, silver linings and all that.”

Burnside shook his head. “I’m not willing to concede that Hugh Morgan has anything to do with my silver lining. Not yet, at least.”

Jeff peered at Burnside carefully over his crumpled cheeseburger wrappers and ketchup smeared french-fries.

“Have you ever considered that it might be too late, Neil?” he said gently.

Burnside tilted his head slightly to examine the menu pasted to the inside of the window. “You encouraged me to fight back against Delgetty when he tried to get me sacked back in April. I was under the impression you were still on my side.”

“You know I’m on your side, Neil,” said Jeff, rolling his eyes. “I’m just trying to be practical.”

Burnside laughed sardonically. “Practical. I’m trying to salvage my job and you’re telling me to be practical. I am being practical! I’m a highly capable Director of Operations. I know what I’m doing is for the best of the Service –”

“What made you back out of it, Neil?” Jeff cut him off. “A week ago you were all posed to commit professional suicide with your tricks down in Malta. Now all of a sudden you’ve decided to put up a fight.”

“It’s because right now Gibbs is all too pleased to provide me with the gun to put to the side of my head. And I don’t plan on giving him the satisfaction,” said Burnside angrily.

Jeff pursed his lips, “So that’s what it is? Some kind of glorious last stand? Neil Burnside won’t go down without a bang? Can’t bear to exit the scene gracefully –”

“So you want me out of the way, too?” Burnside demanded. “Is that it? You’re trying to convince me I’ve all washed up, that I’ve lost my nerve or some other such nonsense –”

“No one said you’ve lost your nerve, Neil,” said Jeff. His eyes peered carefully into Burnside’s face for a moment before dropping to his food. “And I don’t want you out of the way. Believe me, I want you as D-Ops. You’ve been good for the Service. Good for the Special Relationship. God knows you’ve been good for a friend –”

Burnside looked across the restaurant, at the line of people waiting to place their orders, to the little boy mashing his hamburger with his fists, anywhere but at Jeff’s piercing hazel eyes.

“All I’m trying to say is, why make things any worse for yourself than they already are?” Jeff continued. “You’re still an asset to the Service, get yourself a cushy job at a Station, get yourself a girl to come home to at nights. But if you keep going at this rate, they’ll be all too anxious to kick you out on the streets.”

“I’m not so sure I haven’t already crossed that line,” said Burnside. The problem with suicide was, that once one got passed a certain point, there was no going back, no matter how hard one tried.

“I’d say I told you so but I like to think I’m not quite that cruel,” said Jeff with half a smile.

Burnside almost smiled back, but the mussels in his face felt heavy and stiff.

Jeff looked closely at a cold french-fry before throwing it back down on his wrapper. “Listen, I’ve got to go. Langley wants some reports drawn up by yesterday afternoon. For some reason they get upset when they’re late.”

“Alright,” said Burnside.

Jeff stood up and slung his coat over his arm. It was warmer day out. The skies had finally cleared of the lingering clouds and rain.

“I’ll see you at the service tomorrow?”

“I’ll be there,” said Burnside, stifling a sigh.

“Good. And, seriously, keep in mind what I said about Moore. I know you don’t want your last Sandbagger at too much risk.”

“Alright,” said Burnside again.

“And listen, Neil, take care of yourself, alright?”

Burnside smiled weakly, “Sure.” Jeff turned on his heel and walked briskly out, holding the door briefly for a woman and her daughter. Burnside breathed heavily before snatching hold of his jacket and following Jeff out of the restaurant.

Chapter Text

“A Sandbagger has got to be sure his D-Ops will die in the ditch for him come what may.”
– Neil Burnside to Willie Caine, Episode “A Question of Loyalty”

“You know Sandbaggers don’t like using guns.”
“I know Caine doesn’t. You didn’t. But Wallace?”
– Neil Burnside to Matthew Peele, Episode “A Question of Loyalty”

Marianne looked up as Jim Sandy, PA to C, wandered into the small break room designated for the senior PAs.

“Marianne,” said Sandy with a smile and a nod, going over to the refrigerator to pull out a bagged lunch.

“Hello, Jim,” Marianne sighed.

“Rough day?”

“Isn’t it always?” she answered.

Sandy smiled sympathetically, “Burnside reading the riot act again, is he?”

“I don’t understand him,” Marianne moaned. “I try to extend a hand of sympathy, one moment he’s tagging along for dinner and the next he’s biting my head off.”

Sandy shook his head, “Well, if what I’ve heard is true than you might not have to deal with him for much longer.”

Marianne swallowed. “Oh? What do you mean?”

“I overheard C talking to Sir Geoffrey, they were discussing a short list of possible replacement Operations Directors.”

“They can’t be serious,” said Marianne. “Goodness knows I’m aware he’s a hard man to work with, but he’s one of the best D-Ops the Service has ever had.”

“I suppose they’ve finally realized he’s more trouble than he’s worth,” said Sandy, shrugging as he unwrapped a sandwich. “You can’t exactly blame them, can you? After all, Burnside’s been riding for a fall for years. And just look at him now! Man looks like he’s half-way out of his mind, hasn’t slept for days, thin as a wraith….”

“Yes,” said Marianne slowly, suddenly finding her throat much too dry to continue eating the sandwich in front of her on the table. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I know I’m right,” said Sandy. “And after that catastrophe in Malta I can’t see that Burnside has a chance in the world of convincing C otherwise.”

“But – if they’re so anxious to replace him, why take the risk of letting him run another Operation?”

“A final romp, of sorts, before they make the switch?” Sandy suggested with another shrug. “I suppose they aim to get what little good out of him before he goes.”

“They can’t mean to dump him on the streets, not after everything he’s done for them,” said Marianne.

“Oh no,” said Sandy. “I don’t expect it’ll be an all-out sacking. I believe they were discussing a reappointment, Head of Station in Greenland or something like it.”

Marianne felt her lips twist painfully into a smile, “I expect Burnside will prefer unemployment to that.”

Sandy smiled in return, “Yes, well, I don’t think Burnside has much more say in the matter.”

Mike walked abreast with Harold Vane down the streets of Beirut, slowing his pace slightly to accommodate the shorter, heavier set man, whose forehead was beaded with sweat from the morning sun. Mike surveyed the rubble and skeletal remains of buildings interspersed with structures that had been restored with new stone and canvas awnings. The sun was bright and hot, reflecting off the muted gray and brown roads and buildings.

The streets were sparsely populated. Most of the civilians, Mike knew, had fled to safer parts of the country or out of the country altogether through the duration of the war. Occasionally men wearing green uniforms and with assault rifles slung over their shoulders ambled by. Mike turned his head, watching a patrol march pass.

“We are in the middle of a civil war, you know,” said Vane primly, watching Mike.

“So I’ve heard,” said Mike.

“I suppose it still take a bit of getting used to, though,” Vane added, “After leaving the comfort of London and all. Bit of a shock to see men in the streets with guns.”

Mike wanted to tell Vane that he’d seen plenty of men with guns before, that barely four days ago one of the best men Mike had ever know had been shot and killed in front of his eyes, but he didn’t. He walked wordlessly beside Vane. He’d learned in his short time in Lebanon that it was best to remain silent in Vane’s company, lest be treated to an hour long lecture.

“Of course most of the fighting is in the south, now,” Vane continued, “primarily on the Israeli border, but there are still the occasional skirmishes across the Green Line, pot shots at heads peaking above the barricades and so on. And the Syrians do like to shake things up with the occasional bombing.”

Mike tuned him out. It must have been the fifth time he’d heard Vane discuss the conflict in the city, and each time the same information expressed with different words in varying sentence structure.

Mike didn’t need to know about it, anyway. All he had to know was how he’d get across the Green Line, how he’d locate Moore, and how he’d get Moore out – all while the people holding Moore probably had assault rifles and machine guns and all Mike had was a bloody revolver, a pompous fool who thought Mike didn’t know what he was doing, and a boss back home that wanted it done quietly.

Somewhere in the distance, echoes strangely distorted off the crumbling walls of buildings, Mike could hear the faraway patter of a machine gun.

“The border’s just around this corner,” said Vane. “You’ll not want to get too close if you don’t want someone ending your operation before you begin it.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” said Mike dryly. He walked around the corner of a gutted building. There were barricades made of bags of sand and wooden planks and more soldiers carrying guns. Down the street Mike could make out the lush foliage that covered the empty, gaping no-man’s land that served as a border between East and West Beirut and gave it the name Green Line.

Beyond the green trees and bushes Mike could make out East Beirut’s own barricades holed up in ally-ways, patrolled by distant figures holding smooth black guns that glinted in the sunlight.

“There it is then,” said Vane, hands in his pockets. “It’s filled with land mines and booby traps. Snipers overlook it, too. Children used to try to get across it when they were looking for a romp. Can’t imagine why you wanted to see it. There are much more important things to be doing other than sightseeing, after all.”

“It’s best to get a lay of the land,” said Mike, not looking at Vane. “I’ll want to know where everything is come night-fall. Just in case I find myself having to make my way in the dark.”

“Yes, but that’s what we’ve got the plan for, isn’t it?” said Vane.

Mike smiled bitterly, “I’ve learned that things very rarely go according to plan in my last few months being a Sandbagger.”

Just than a uniformed man with dark hair and a mustache approached them. He addressed himself to Vane, speaking in Lebanese. Vane spoke to him for a moment in the same language, gesturing to Mike, “My associate,” he said in English, “Monsieur Plourde, over from France collecting what’s left of his business.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Plourde,” said the soldier in a heavily accented voice, nodding briskly.

Mike smiled tightly and nodded in return. “Bonjour.

“Many hopes your trip goes well, Mr. Plourde,” the man added. “Please, I ask you to be careful. These are dangerous times in this city.”

“Yes, thank you, my good man,” said Vane.

The soldier nodded briskly to each of them in turn before once again joining his comrades on the other side of the street. Mike watched him leave, feeling Vane’s eyes on him.

“Local militia, you know,” he said in explanation.

“Yes, I’d gathered as much,” said Mike.

Vane cleared his throat, “Yes, well, if you’re quite done here, would you care for a drink? There’s still plenty of time before you set out to scout around tonight.”

“No thank you,” said Mike. “I make a point not to drink while on an operation. In fact, I’m considering giving up altogether. There’s no point risking ever being any less than the top of my game when the moment demands it of me.”

“Ah, shame that,” said Vane with a nod and a smile. “It’s one of my more enjoyable vices.”

Burnside clasped his hands in front of him on the desk and faced Arthur Page, a muscular man with a square face and thinning brown hair.

“Why is it you want to join the Special Section?”

Page cleared his throat. “It seems like interesting work, sir. I’ve been at Brussels for the past four years, seen enough of what you do and thought it might be nice to stretch my legs a bit, see the world.”

“A Sandbagger’s job is hardly akin to a travel agency,” said Burnside.

“Oh, no, sir,” said Page, smiling easily. “But you know what I mean.”

“You do know that most of your time will be spent pushing paper down in the hutch?” Burnside continued, “Probably stretch your legs more down in Brussels.”

“I’m prepared for that, sir,” said Page. “Still though, bloody interesting work when you’re not pushing paper.”

“It’s having to deal with panic in the face of possible death and still come up with the best solutions to sometimes double-bladed questions,” Burnside barked. “There’s nothing interesting about it.”

Page raised his eyebrows, “No, sir.”

Burnside looked down at Page’s folder spread out on his desk, making a show of scanning his report even though he’d already read it several times. “You understand Mike Wallace is currently the Head of Special Section?”

“Of course, sir,” said Page.

“He’s several years younger than you and been in the Service for under three years, yet you’ll have to treat him as your superior. Do you think you could do that?”

“Yes, sir,” said Page, “…after all, it’s up to the Service to appoint who they please. This Wallace, he was just recently promoted to Head of Special Section, wasn’t he? By a sort of default process when his superior was killed –”

“It doesn’t matter how Wallace got the job,” Burnside barked. “He’s still a bloody good operative and knows more about being a Sandbagger than you do.”

Page smiled again, “Of course, sir. I didn’t mean any harm, sir.”

Burnside pursed his lips. “Alright. You’re free to go.”

“Well did I –” Page hesitated, “Did I get the job, sir?”

“I’ll let you know,” said Burnside coldly.

Burnside frowned at Page’s back as he left the office. Marianne peered through the door, “Any luck, sir? Page looked a bit bewildered.”

“Yes,” said Burnside. “I expect the Deputy Chief told him to expect a warm welcome.”

“Then you haven’t decided to take him?”

“I haven’t decided anything yet,” Burnside snapped. “He seemed a pretentious fool, no wonder Peele put us on to him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Burnside cursed under his breath, rubbing the back of his neck, which still ached from having fallen asleep in a chair the night before. “I guess I’d better make a decision soon, little time I have left to make it.”

The boat bobbed softly in the inky black Mediterranean. Mike surveyed the rough gray cliff face contemplatively. Above the small fishing boat a sliver of a crescent moon hung between pin-prick stars, doing little to penetrate the darkness of night.

Dali, standing behind the boat’s wheel, said softly, “Vous aimez ce que vous voyez, Monsieur?” Luckily Dali could speak French. Mike had a feeling that Vane would not have liked having to come along as translator.

Je suppose qu'il aura à faire,” Mike answered.

They’d gotten a fix on the exact building his kidnappers were holding Moore, a bombed-out, abandoned villa that overlooked the sea. There were at least two guards stationed outside, no telling how many inside. Mike scanned the cliff, mentally planning his ascent. He’d need to take out the guards silently, first, then worry about getting to Moore.

He’d spoken to Burnside. He knew there was a chance Moore was already dead, but also knew that Burnside wasn’t going to use that excuse to pull out of the operation.

Bon, si vous avez terminé,” Dali continued, “nous devons aller. Il est dangereux, rester au même endroit trop longtemps.”

Dali was asking whether or not they could leave. Mike gave a taught nod. The other man’s unease was understandable. Mike could understand that to Dali, a smuggler who was used to constantly looking over his shoulder and moving to avoid detection, the lack of action might be unnerving.

Dali turned the motor of the boat on with a gurgling rush. Mike stifled a sigh. After all, there wasn’t anything else Mike could learn from staring blankly at a cliff. Tomorrow night was when the real test would be. Mike tried to smother the simmering nerves in his stomach. He still had an uneasy feeling that he was flying into the operation blindly –

Suddenly there was a sharp crack followed by the wet slap of a bullet skimming across the water and Mike dropped to his knees on instinct, blood pounding in his brain, heart racing, mussels taught.

Dali was cursing furiously under his breath as he fumbled for the controls of the boat, motor roaring to life as he spun the boat right-about in the water.

There was another sharp gunshot, echoing off the cliffs and surface of the water. Mike, still crouched near the deck, craned his neck, trying to see through the darkness to the top of the cliff, attempting to make out the figure of their attacker. His eyes could not pierce the darkness, however, and soon Dali had guided the boat far enough that the dark cliff blended into the rest of the night sky.

Slowly Mike uncoiled, out of range from the sniper by now and relatively out of danger. Dali guided the boat far out from the shore and slowly wheeled it to point in the direction of the port of West Beirut.

The tumbling nerves in Mike’s stomach combined with the bouncing of the small boat across the surf made him feel queasy. He took a deep breath, trying to settle his stomach. He became aware of a strange sound above the whirl of the motor and rushing water.

He looked up at Dali, whose teeth glinted in the moonlight as he smiled, eyes glimmering with an almost manic glee. He was laughing quietly to himself. When he noticed Mike was watching him he chuckled harder, “Est que assez d'excitation pour vous, Monsieur Plourde?

Mike smiled weakly in return, “Oui, plus de assez d'excitation pour moi.” Yes, more than enough excitement for one night.

Bruce Copeland snatched the telephone as soon as it began to ring. Burnside sat up tensely in his chair in the ops-room.

After speaking briskly for a moment he turned to Burnside, handing over the phone, “Sandbagger One, sir.”

Burnside snatched up the phone. “Yes, what is it?”

“Hello, sir?” Mike’s voice cut clearly across the line.

Burnside blinked. For a wild moment he had expected it to be Willie.

He recovered himself quickly, not quite understanding why his heart was pattering so painfully against his ribs. “Yes, Mike, what is it?

“Just got back from my night out,” said Mike guardedly. “Had a run in with some people who were less than happy to see me.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, sir,” Mike continued, “A bit shaken, perhaps, but everything still seems fine on this end.”

“You don’t think they recognized you?”

“No, sir,” said Mike. “I think they respond the same way to most people they run into at night. I don’t think it was anything personal.”

“Thank goodness for that,” said Burnside. “Then you don’t think you’ve any reason to pull out early?”

“No, sir,” said Mike. “I’m still alright as long as you are.”

“Nothing’s changed on this end, either,” Burnside answered.

“Alright then,” said Mike promptly. “I think I’ll be going to bed early tomorrow night. So if you need to call, do so before nine.”

“Alright, Mike,” said Burnside. There was a click on the other end of the line as Mike hung up and Burnside followed suit. He breathed deeply, still trying to calm the beating of his heart. He felt suddenly light-headed. He realized Bruce was staring inquiringly at him.

“Everything still according to the plan, sir?” he asked.

“Yes,” Burnside answered, “it’s all still a go. Tomorrow night, nineteen-hundred hours on this end, Mike makes his move.”

Marianne quickened her pace as soon as she crossed the threshold of the building, walking toward the elevator before the doors slid shut.

“Hold the door, please, sir,” she said and John Tower Gibbs obliged her gruffly.

She stepped aboard the elevator and the doors slid shut behind her.

“Good morning, sir.”

C grunted something indistinct in reply, undoubtedly unaccustomed to being addressed by a subordinate as low as Marianne.

“I wondered if I might speak with you for a moment, sir.” Her voice was clear off the silver walls of the small box, which began ascending with a gentle lurch and musical ping.

Finally he gave her his full attention, gaging her with his piercing gray eyes, obviously trying to place her.

“I’m Marianne Straker, sir.”

“Ah yes,” he nodded and looked away again, “of course, Miss Straker – Burnside’s girl aren’t you?”

“I’m his PA, yes,” she answered tightly.

“Well, what is it you want?” he said impatiently.

“I was wondering, sir –”

He cut her off, “Burnside didn’t put you up to this, did he?”

“No, sir,” she said, trying to keep her voice level, ignoring the pulse clogging her throat. “I heard from Jim Sandy – you know, word gets around among the PAs – that you were thinking of replacing Mr. Burnside as D-Ops. You were displeased with his conduct in Malta –”

“What I plan to do with my personnel is no concern of yours, Miss Straker.”

“No, sir –” Marianne faltered, “I know it isn’t any of my business –”

“You’re getting off on the second floor, aren’t you?” C interrupted her again.

“No sir, I’ve got to see the Deputy Chief’s secretary,” Marianne answered quickly, “Collect some forms that were sent up to Lucy by mistake – but, sir, I was only wondering – I went out with Mr. Burnside the other night –”

“You did, did you?” said C scathingly, “I’d thought Burnside had given up seeing people in the Service after – what’s her name – the female Sandbagger? Dickens, was it?”

“It wasn’t at all like that, sir,” said Marianne, fingers trembling, pushing relentlessly on. “But I – I was speaking to him and he’s – he’s very worried about his job here, sir. He wants nothing more than to prove to you that he means only the best for the Service –”

The elevator came to a stop on the sixth floor and the doors slid open. Gibbs dismounted, “I’m sorry, Miss Straker, but it is of no consequence whether or not Burnside thought what he did was in the best interest for the Service. That is a decision delegated to higher authorities than him. He’s already been given a plethora of second chances, and sending you to plead his case won’t change anything.”

Marianne stepped into the hallway after him. “Sir, if you’d only listen to me for a moment,” she tried to keep her voice level, tried to keep away any note of desperation or pleading, “Mr. Burnside made a mistake – he’s willing to admit that now. Everyone’s made one or two mistakes in their life, you can’t fault him for that. I’m sure you, yourself, have –”

“Careful, Miss Straker,” said C, eyebrows raised. “It may due for you to remember that, just like Burnside’s, I hold your employment in the Service within my hands.”

Marianne breathed deeply, “Sir – I’m begging you. Burnside is – he’s not been himself. Willie Caine’s death has affected him more than he’s willing to admit and – and if you sack him now I’m afraid he’ll go over the edge –”

“On the brink of a nervous breakdown is certainly not where we want out Director of Operations,” said C curtly.

“You don’t understand, sir, the Service is all he knows. If you terminate him, then he won’t have anywhere else to go!”

“We are not here to act as Burnside’s nursemaids, Miss Straker.”

“He’s a damn good D-Ops, sir!” she said bluntly. “You know that. The Service needs him, despite his faults. There wouldn’t be any point banishing him to somewhere where he couldn’t be of any legitimate use –”

“That is quite enough, Miss Straker,” said Gibbs sharply, frowning at her in a way that suggest cruel finality and made icy fingers close around her chest. “And I’ll ask you again to please remember your place.”

Marianne swallowed, throat tight and dry. Her lungs deflated, hands went limp at her sides. She felt needles prick at the corners of her eyes. She wasn’t a girl who normally cried. “Yes, sir,” she whispered.

“Now, if you’re quite done,” said Gibbs deliberately, already turning on his heel, “then I’ve more productive things to do than argue with Burnside’s secretary.”

Chapter Text

“And Willie Caine is different?”
“He could have been. Why do you think he has such a loathing for violence, because this isn’t his scene at all. He’s a nice, uncomplicated human being who should have had a home and wife and kids.”
“Are you volunteering?”
“I might have done before you got to him and turned him inside out.”
– Neil Burnside and Diane Lawler, Episode “Enough of Ghosts”

“You used to drink when you were on the section, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I just gave it up when I was promoted.”
“I got called once, soon after I took over as Director. Found myself drunk out of my mind, having to make a very difficult decision, and…well, it’s something I’ll never do again.”
“Typical of you, Neil.”
“All or nothing. No half measures.”
“It’s easier that way, sir.”
– Matthew Peele and Neil Burnside, Episode “All in a Good Cause”

The sun was creeping toward the tops of the trees that surrounded the small cemetery. Burnside stood stiffly in the grass, arms at his side, eyes trained on the casket, the same focus of the many people who surrounded it.

Burnside had not properly realized how well-known Willie had been. There were many people attending his funeral, friends from his time in the RAF, neighbors, childhood comrades from school. His mother stood mutely near the priest.

She looked very small and sallow, bundled in her black dress and shawl. Burnside had not gone up to her, as the other guests had, to tell her how much of a loss Willie Caine’s death had been.

Jeff was standing beside Burnside. He had asked him when he got there, “How ‘bout dinner with me and Jenny tonight? I promise, she’s gotten loads better at cooking since the last time we had you.” An offer Burnside had declined. He was already uneasy enough as it was, being so far from the ops-room when Mike was scheduled to move in only a few hours.

Marianne was standing nearer the casket, hands in the pockets of her coat, face pale but still not crying and somehow that seemed to irritate Burnside more than if she had been. Peele wasn’t there, nor was Gibbs. But of course Diane was, with her husband Christopher Cunningham, whom Burnside had never met and never wanted to. Her husband’s arm was around her shoulder. She looked pregnant under her black dress.

Willie would have made a good father. The thought erupted out of the carefully constructed wall inside Burnside’s mind, on one side important, pressing aims like Mike’s mission and Hugh Morgan, on the other side Laura Dickins, Tom Eliot, and anything to do with Willie Caine. Burnside struggled against the thought, which threatened to drag with it many others that looked and sounded and felt the same.

He stared without blinking at Willie’s casket, sun glinting painfully off the polished wood.

Burnside had never considered children. Belinda had known he hadn’t from the start. He’d never thought to ask her if she thought any different. It was one of the reasons – one of the many that she had wanted to leave him, that perhaps the disappointed that she couldn’t change his mind, couldn’t change anything about him, had been too much for her.

The priest was going on about ashes to ashes and dust to dust but Burnside wasn’t listening. Willie’s mother drew a cross over her chest with trembling fingers. Burnside had never known Willie to be particularly religious.

Somewhere up the gentle slope of grass of the cemetery there was the soft slam of a car door. Burnside turned his head, eyes falling on Bruce Copeland, who was ambling down the slope, eyes searching the crowd. They stopped when they landed on Burnside.

Burnside’s stomach clenched when he caught sight of the taught and urgent expression on Bruce’s face. He stepped back carefully, gently extricating himself from the crowd. He felt Jeff’s eyes on his back as he walked away, the priest’s droning voice lost in the distance and insistent patter of Burnside’s heart in his ears.

“What’s happened?” he said urgently when he reached Bruce, halfway between Willie’s grave and the funeral procession at the top of the hill.

“It’s Mike’s operation, sir,” said Bruce, “We’ve got another message from Moore’s captors, they’ve offered an ultimatum. The ransom to be delivered by midnight or Moore will be killed.”

“Will Mike move before then?”

“Yes, sir,” said Bruce, fidgeting, “but it’s cutting it close if Mike is to move by nine o’clock. He won’t infiltrate the villa until after eleven.”

Burnside cursed.

“Another thing, sir,” said Bruce, “the kidnappers said Moore is no longer being held in Beirut. Probably to discourage any rescue attempts.”

Burnside shook his head, “No, that can’t be. We’ve contacts over the Green Line that have been watching the villa. We’d know if Moore had been moved.”

“Perhaps he was never there in the first place, sir,” Bruce suggested. “After all, it was largely guesswork on our part –”

“Educated guesswork,” Burnside snapped.

“Of course, sir,” said Bruce. “But don’t you think we’d better hold Mike off. Reevaluate the situation? After all, the kidnappers have set the time themselves. It’s almost as if they’re inviting a lift –”

“And could possibly be waiting for Mike to show up, yes,” Burnside finished.

“What’s going on over here?” said Jeff’s voice, inquisitive but also vaguely disapproving. Burnside turned to see Jeff walking up the slope towards them. He caught sight of Marianne, still beside Willie’s casket, watching Burnside carefully. He had also attracted the attention of several other guests, including Diane, who merely looked resigned.

“Come on,” Burnside said roughly, leading them father away from the service, moving towards Bruce’s car, explaining the situation to Jeff as they walked.

Jeff whistled quietly when Burnside was finished, “You still want to go for it, though? Even though the chances are Moore’s not even there?”

“I haven’t any choice,” said Burnside.

“Because you’re so concerned for Moore or for yourself?”

“Shut it, Jeff. I’m in no mood for your riddles.”

“These aren’t riddles, Neil. I’m just trying to make the point that maybe, in between your concern for your job, you’ve forgotten to be concerned for Mike.”

“Mike’s a Sandbagger,” said Burnside.

Jeff shook his head, “And you and me both know that Sandbaggers aren’t any less susceptible to bullets.”

Behind them, one by one, guests were leaving flowers atop Willie’s casket.

Burnside looked away, “This is my decision, Jeff. I’m still Direction of Operations, and not you or anyone else is going to take that from me.”

Jeff clenched his jaw. Burnside could tell he wanted to say a great deal more, but what he had to say could certainly not be said while a funeral proceeded behind them.

“Alright, Bruce,” Burnside said. “I’ll come back with you. I’ll need to be on-hand.”

“I’ll tag along, as well,” said Jeff.

“No,” said Burnside, rather forcefully. “I don’t need your interfering.”

Jeff frowned. Burnside walked with Bruce to the car.

“Listen – Neil,” Jeff said haltingly. Burnside turned back around reluctantly. “Keep me informed, okay?”

Burnside nodded tautly. “Okay.”

Mike checked the clock over Harold Vane’s desk. The other man was frowning, arms crossed over his stomach. “Well, if Burnside hasn’t called it off by now than I suppose you’re still on.”

“Yes,” said Mike. “I suppose so.”

“I trust you understand the gravity of the situation,” Vane continued. “If you can’t get away with this quietly then I’m afraid the Station will have to deny all knowledge –”

“That isn’t anything new,” said Mike impatiently. He took out his gun, examining it carefully, testing its weight in his palm, flicking the safety off and on again to make sure it didn’t catch, a nervous habit. He’d already checked several times to make sure everything was fit.

He glanced at the clock again. His eyes trailed across the telephone briefly, almost half-heartedly hoping it would ring. Unable to delay any longer he said, “I guess I’d better head off to the port, now.”

Vane nodded, “Good luck, Monsieur Plourde.”

Mike tucked his gun into his shoulder harness and smoothing his jacket over top. “Thanks. I’ll need it.”

Burnside paced rapidly between the desks of the ops-room. Bruce and Stanley watched him tensely. It was quarter to seven. Mike would be leaving in fifteen minutes if Burnside didn’t decide to stop him. There was no reason to stop him. Of course Burnside wouldn’t stop him. He turned on his heel sharply, footsteps cracking on the hard floor.

“If we don’t move now then Moore will most certainly be killed,” Burnside said, to no one in particular, trying to explain, to clarify, to find some sort of grounds for his decision.

“Yes, sir,” said Bruce calmly.

“We haven’t any choice but to proceed.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bruce again.

Burnside ground his teeth together, trying to push through the rushing thoughts and uncertainties in his mind. There was nothing wrong with the operation. Mike would know what he was getting into. Mike would be able to get Moore and get out. Mike would be alright. Mike would –

Burnside was still pacing, fast enough that he created a wind that fluttered papers on top of desks. The door of the ops-room swung open and Burnside jerked to a stop, finding himself face-to-face with Morgan, who looked grim.

“Heard about the operation, Burnside,” said Morgan gruffly, “wondered if there was anything I could do.”

“There’s nothing, thank you,” said Burnside sharply. He began pacing again. Morgan deposited himself in a chair, laying his cane over his knees.

“You’ve still given the go ahead then?” said Morgan.

“There’s no other choice,” said Burnside again, somehow the words readily at his lips. “Moore will be dead by midnight. Mike has to move now.”

“They’ll be expecting him.”

“Mike will be fine.”

“Could be Moore’s already dead.”

“There’s no other choice.”

“There’s plenty of other choices, Burnside, there always are. It’s your refusal to admit it that’s got your other Sandbaggers killed –”

“Stay out of it, Morgan! I’m D-Ops! The choice is up to me!” Burnside could not remember having made the decision to yell. His voice rebounded off the walls of the ops-room, leaving a ringing silence in their wake.

Morgan frowned at him. Stanley and Bruce stared.

The phone rang shrilly. Stanley snatched it up. He listened tensely into the receiver for a moment, blood draining from his face. “Are you sure?” he asked tersely. He listened again, muffled voice answering on the other end of the line winding incoherently in Burnside’s mind, and then hung up the phone.

Stanley’s eyes were urgent when he faced Burnside. He ran his tongue over his lips, “That was our contact in Beirut. The LNM found a body in an alley in West Beirut earlier this afternoon. We’ve just now got the information over the border. They’ve identified him as Moore.”

Something went blank in Burnside’s head, a white sheet floated over his mind, Stanley’s voice rebounded meaningless against the walls of his skull.

“Does the Station know?” said Bruce curtly.

“They were calling just as they called us,” said Stanley. “Sir, what do we do? Sandbagger One –”

It occurred to Burnside that Stanley was addressing him. He could hear his heart thumping in his ears. The clock ticked, hand moving jerkily forward.

Sandbagger One – Mike – Sandbagger One – Moore, dead – and Sandbagger One –

Burnside blinked. His feet were glued to the floor. He opened and closed his fists, held his breath until he grew lightheaded

Sandbagger One – Burnside’s scattered thoughts refused to collect themselves into any logical course of action. Sandbagger One – found dead – Moore, found dead – and – Mike – But Willie –

No, Burnside couldn’t let – But Willie – Burnside shook his head, trying to clear his mind – But Willie –

No, it was Mike now. Mike was counting on Burnside – But Willie – No – But Willie – But Laura –

No, Burnside needed to think straight. He needed to think – But Willie – But Tom, and Jack, and Allen – But Mike – No, he needed a clear head. He’d lose his job if – But Willie – But – But – Sandbaggers were still susceptible to bullets – He had to think of Mike, now – But Willie – Shut up! – Willie was – And Mike was – But Willie was – But Willie –

“Abort mission,” said Morgan, stepping forward, mouth set in a grim line and not looking at Burnside at all. “There’s no use. Sandbagger One can’t do any more good.”

Burnside blinked. He realized he’d balled his hands into fists. His fingernails were biting into his sweaty palms. His collar suddenly felt strangely tight. He focused on breathing deeply, trying to calm the pattering of his heart. Stanley was staring at him, searching for approval.

“Well?” Burnside snapped, voice leaping out of his lips, scraping painfully up his throat. The minute hand of the clock ticked passed the small, black number seven. “What are you waiting for? Do as he says! Mission aborted. Get Wallace back here.”

He could feel Morgan’s eyes, like two sharp knives, digging into the back of his head. Stanley was already reaching for the phone, fumblingly dialing the numbers.

“Station Number One? ...Vane? ...This is London. Mission aborted. Moore’s already dead. Tell Sandbagger One mission aborted.”

The silence that met Stanley’s voice as he listened to the reply back from Beirut rattled in Burnside’s ears. His hands were covered in cold sweat. He was shivering all over. Slowly, meticulously, he raised a trembling hand and straightened his tie.

Stanley hung up the phone, click of the receiver sharp and echoing, cruelly final. Stanley swallowed. He cleared his throat. He swallowed again, “Mike’s already left, sir – he – waited as long as he could. Vane just got word of Moore’s death, himself. I’m sorry, sir, but there’s nothing we can do now but wait….”

Wait. Wait for what? Wait to hear from Beirut that Mike had infiltrated a terrorist base for no bloody reason, was risking his life for no bloody reason, would undoubtedly be shot for – and Burnside – and Burnside had – if only he had –

“He might still be alright, sir,” said Bruce. “Mike’s good with a gun. If we thought he could pull off the mission before we knew of Moore’s death then there’s no reason to think he can’t still get in and out now….”

Burnside could still feel Morgan’s eyes on the back on his head, knew the older man was watching him, watching everything, watching Burnside’s fingers tremble at his sides, watching the beads of sweat slither down Burnside’s neck and collect on the collar of his shirt.

“I’ll be –” Burnside struggled to breathe through the tightness of his throat. He didn’t answer Stanley and Bruce’s wordless inquiries, soundless pleas for reassurance because Burnside had no words of comfort, had nothing at all to say and – and Mike – and Willie was – “I’ll be in my office. Keep me informed.”

He turned sharply on his heel, brushed passed Morgan on his way to the door. He fumbled for the knob with his sweaty, shaking hands and swung open the door, stumbling into the hall. He walked jerkily toward the lift.

His head was spinning. He couldn’t think. Sweat dribbled down the side of his face. His stomach lurched as the elevator shuddered to a stop on the second floor and Burnside dismounted. He walked toward his office, stumbling over his feet, eyes glazed over, breath seeping harshly through his lips.

He pushed open the door and Marianne leapt up from her desk with a gasp, “Sir, I came back early when I saw you leave the service. What happened? Is Mike alright? Are you alright?”

He didn’t answer her. His voice was quite calm when he spoke, staring across the room, not at Marianne, not at the clock, or the typewriter, not even through the open curtains to the dark sky peaking over the building across the road.

“Take down a letter for me, Marianne,” he said.

“A – a letter, sir?”

“Addressed to C. Make a copy for Peele, as well.”

“Of – of course, sir.”

He waited until she’d placed a sheet in the typewriter and poised her fingers over the keys, and then in the same perfectly calm, measure voice, began to dictate, “I, Neil Burnside, wish to formally notify you….”

Mike hauled himself over the cliff and fell into a crouch, perched on his toes in the sandy ground, ears straining for any sound, eyes peering through the darkness. Somewhere in the distance, but sounding strangely close in the misleading silence of the night, a dog barked.

His heart was beating rapidly in his chest, giving him an almost calming rhythm to pace his thoughts. He paused a moment to quiet his heavy breathing from the exertion of the climb. He coiled the rope and tucked it carefully beneath the branches of some shrubbery. Below, bobbing softly in the choppy waves of the Mediterranean, Dali waited patiently in his boat for Mike’s return with Moore.

He pulled his gun out of its holster and fit it snuggly into his gloved palm. He made one last, sweeping glance at his surrounding and then scurried across the shadow bathed lawn. There was no trace of any guards.

Light spilled out of the windows of the villa. He darted through the crisscrossed shadows, breathing through his nose, running silently on his toes. He’d reached the villa and paused, back pressed tightly against the brick wall, cool through his dark jacket. He laid the back of his head against the wall, listening carefully. His ears pricked at the sound of footsteps.

Mike counted silently in his head, measuring the footsteps crackling on the sandy gravel, approaching slowly with casual paces. His mussels tensed, fingers closing around the handle of his gun. A shadowy figure appeared around the corner. Mike caught the brief glint of a rifle in the light seeping through the windows before he sprang forward. Before the guard had a chance to turn or perhaps even to realize Mike was there, Mike’s gun came down sharply on the back of the man’s skull with a leaden crack.

The man crumpled, but Mike caught him under his arms before he collapsed to the ground. He dragged him soundlessly out of the way, stowing him below more of the scraggly shrubbery that lined the villa property. Mike’s heart was thundering frantically in his ears now, and he paused again in an attempt to calm the wildly throbbing pulse in his wrists.

He searched the area but there wasn’t any sign of more guards. Gun still poised in his hand he dashed back to the side of the villa, moving quickly to the low, arched doorway, under which a crack of light shone.

He switched the gun to his left hand, fished in his pocket for a wire, and jimmied the lock quietly and precisely. He sucked in a breath through his nose, paused to listen with his ear to the door, gently eased his foot through the crack to check if the hinges creaked, and then slipped inside altogether. He snapped his gun to shoulder height, pointing down the hallway the door opened into, quite prepared to shoot anything that moved. There wasn’t anyone in sight and he darted across the hallway to find cover around the nearest corner.

There were muffled voices coming from down the hallway. Make walked, toe to heel, gun outstretched, finger on the trigger, toward them. They were men’s voices, talking quietly and casually. He paused at another corner, wall smooth against his cheek as he listened, carefully peaking around the edge.

There were two men sitting at a table in an open kitchen. One had his back to Mike, the other sitting so his profile could be seen against a dark window, glass of water in front of his hands.

Mike waited two heartbeats before stepping around the wall briskly, finger already closing around the trigger as the second man turned, attracted by the movement in the corner of his eye.

Mike’s gun went off with a muffled snap of the silencer, bullet hitting the man squarely in the forehead, hand slipping and hitting the glass of water on the table in front of him. It tipped off the table and shattered on the hard floor even as Mike’s forearm closed around the first man’s throat, lips close to his ear as he hissed, “Where’s Moore? Tell me, where are you hiding him?”

Mike repeated himself in French, man’s frightened, stifled breathing sharp in his ears. Mike could see the man’s tan face and widened white eyes reflected in the window across the room, “Où est Moore? Dites-moi, où allez-vous lui cachez.” He placed the muzzle of his gun against the man’s temple. “Répondre rapidement et vous ne serez pas lésés.

En dessous,” the man croaked, not struggling, cheeks growing red, lips opened in a silent shout, large and gaping, “Dans la cave.

The back of Mike’s gun came down sharply on the man’s head and he slumped over the table with a dull thud.

Mike stepped over the sprawled body of the man he’d shot, blood trailing from the man’s forehead and blending with the water spilled on the floor. Mike made sure not to step in anything, not wanting to leave a trail.

Mike made a cursory glance of the room. The sound of the shattering glass hadn’t seemed to attract anyone’s attention. There was a door set into the wall, presumably leading down to the cellar. There was a chance there were more guards below with Moore, already alerted to Mike’s presence by the sound of the brief struggle.

He stood off to the side and grasped the nob in his fist. He gave it a hard twist and flung open the door, revealing a flight of stairs that descended into darkness. He’d expected to hear the sharp cracks of gunfire but none came. He crouched low, peering carefully down the stairs. He fumbled for a light switch on the inside wall, found one, and a naked light-bulb flickered weakly to life in the center of the ceiling, illuminating a drab cement floor and walls and making the shadows flee to where they lurked in the corners. There was no one in sight.

Not relaxing his grip on the gun, Mike began descending the stairs. They rattled and creaked under his weight, each sound quivering against his eardrums. He breathed slowly and carefully, eyes darting to the corners, searching every crack, ever shadowed place, looking for a gleam of an eye or a gun.

He reached the bottom of the stairs, looking for a door leading to another room where Moore might have been held. He ran his eyes around the smooth, featureless walls, cracked and covered with cobwebs. It was a room that appeared to run the span of the villa from end to end. There weren’t any more doors, not even a cupboard, and there was no one there.

Moore was nowhere in sight.

Mike cursed fervently under his breath. He heard the creak of footsteps in the room above him and immediately tensed again, moving swiftly to the shadows beneath the stairs. He heard the top step creak as someone stepped down, heard the characteristic click of a gun being cocked. The gunshot split the air harshly, sound echoing tenfold off the cement walls, deafening in Mike’s ears.

He flinched but the bullet cracked harmlessly into the opposite wall, gun fired more to startle Mike out of his hiding place then in any hope of injuring him…or perhaps to attract the attention of more guards.

The staircase creaked as the man stepped down another step. Mike could see his looming shadow on the opposite wall, cast by the light of the kitchen. Mike peered through the thatched spaces of the stairs above, trying to get a fix on the shadowy, indistinct form of the man.

He aimed carefully upward and squeezed the trigger. He felt his gun kick in his hand. The man pitched forward with a yell and a crash, tumbling down the stairs, shrieking in pain and fear. The gun went off with another earsplitting bang and the wooden stair in front of Mike’s face splintered into a spray of debris.

Mike shut his eyes by reflex, turning his head to protect his face from the debris but he still felt something sharp slice into his cheek, making a warm trickle of blood run down his face and onto his neck.

He sprang into motion, dashing forward, pointing his gun, and firing another bullet that immediately quieted the man’s yells. Their absence left a shuddering silence in their wake and Mike continued to move rapidly, bounding over the prone form of the dead guard and sprinting up the stairs, not caring about making noise now.

He moved swiftly back through the kitchen and the hallways, pausing only briefly at the corners to point his gun, searching for more guards. His heart was thundering in his ears, adrenaline pulsing feverishly through his veins. He bounded through the door and back into the still night air.

He could hear more shouts now, coming from the other dark buildings around him, roused by the noise of the gunshots. The dog was still barking. Mike didn’t bother to turn around and look behind him for any pursuers, but continued to sprint toward the cliff, tucking his gun out of the way into its holster as he ran.

When he’d reach the edge of the cliff he fell to his knees, tossing the hidden rope back over the side and flinging himself over. He propelled himself downward, heartbeat clogging his ears and making it difficult to discern any pursuing footsteps.

He shoes hit the rocky, slippery bottom of the cliff. His pant legs were sprayed with water from the choppy waves. He clambered over the side of Dali’s waiting boat and landed on all fours on the deck.

Dali’s eyes flashed at him in the darkness. He didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask any questions. He knew Mike had been going to get someone but must have heard the gunshots, assumed something had gone wrong, and now didn’t question Mike’s solitary return.

He revved the motor to life and the boat chugged away from the cliff. Mike rolled back to his feet. He realized for the first time that he was panting for breath. He tossed off his gloves that had been soaked from the inside with sweat. He ran the sleeve of his jacket over his face, wiping off the charcoal residue he had used to darken his face. It came away wet with sweat and blood from the cut on his cheek.

Dali still didn’t speak, guiding the boat deftly through the darkness and away from danger. Mike didn’t speak either, but breathed deeply. He fell into a wooden bench set into the side of the boat and slapped his palm against his leg, “damn.

“Wallace,” said Vane, standing as soon as Mike stormed through the door. “What happened? You got away?”

“Yes I bloody got away,” Mike spat, “but without Moore in toe!”

Vane fidgeted, “Er – yes – you left only minutes before we got the word. Moore was found dead this afternoon –”

“This afternoon!” Mike yelled, fist coming down on Vane’s desk. “And you found out minutes after I left? You didn’t think to check before I set out to be almost killed because of a bunged up operation –”

“Sandbagger One!” said Vane sharply, “I must ask you to please control yourself.”

“Control myself!” Mike exclaimed. “You’re asking me to control myself when your mistake could have very well gotten me killed –”

“You Sandbaggers are all the same,” said Vane scornfully, “Arrogant, reckless hotheads who believe Stations can move worlds to accommodate you –”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Mike bitterly, “I’d almost forgotten Sandbagger was a dirty word on Station.”

“And for good reason!” said Vane indignantly.

“Good reason?” said Mike mockingly, “Need I remind you that it was me who risked my life for Moore, not you who stayed behind your desk and dictated paperwork!”

“I am a senior Head of Station, Mr. Wallace!” Vane said sharply, “I’ll ask you again to please remember it.”

Mike dropped his voice, speaking low and dangerous, voice escaping his lips in a hiss that sounded very like the voice he’d used while he had a gun to the kidnapper’s head. “And I’ll ask you to remember that I don’t mind risking my life for the Service, but I expect that it won’t be given needlessly because someone at a Station was too idiotic to check all the channels beforehand. I don’t want my tombstone to read ‘blundered into a Lebanese terrorist base for no apparent reason and got his sorry head shot off’!”

“Perhaps I should remind you that it wasn’t you, in fact, who was killed – but Moore,” said Vane coldly.

Mike struggled to regain control of himself, breathing heavily through his nose. He ran his still-shaking fingers through his hair. He still had a bit of blood under his fingernails from the hastily bandaged cut on his cheek. Irrationally he wondered if he’d gotten any of the killed guard’s blood on his hands, too, if, indeed, it would ever come off. It was the first time, he realized disjointedly now that he had a chance to think of it, the first time he’d actually had to kill anyone while a Sandbagger.

Strangely, it was not the possibility of Mike’s own mortality that bothered him so much. It was something else, something that was difficult to put his finger on, something nagging in the back of his mind. Perhaps the blunder had not been Vane’s fault, but that something had gone wrong at the other end, in London, and Burnside had still refused to call an end to the operation –

“Since Moore’s been killed and you have nothing left keeping you here” Vane continued frostily, “I suggest you get yourself out of my office and back to London as quickly as possible, before I decide to complain about your attitude to your superiors. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Vane,” Mike said bitterly, mouth twisting into a scowl. “Quite understood.”

Both the Deputy Chief and Morgan were speaking to C quietly across his desk when Burnside marched through the door following a brisk knock.

“Ah, Burnside,” said Gibbs gruffly.

“Neil,” said Peele in surprise, “we were just going to call you up.”

Morgan sat silently beside Peele, cane leaning against his chair, addressing Burnside with his calculating eyes. Burnside refused to look at him. He addressed Peele, lips twisted painfully into a smile, “Were you, sir?”

“Yes, I’m afraid we have a good deal to discuss, Burnside,” said Gibbs.

“First of all, however,” Peele cut in, “I was certainly relieved to hear about Wallace – near miss, that one. It’s good to know we shan’t be needing to replace two Sandbaggers instead of just one.”

“Yes, sir,” said Burnside.

“He’ll be returning soon, then?”

“Yes, sir,” Burnside said again. “He’ll be on a flight back from Lebanon as we speak.”

Gibbs cleared his throat, “Why don’t you have a seat, Burnside?” he said with an impatient wave of his hand.

Burnside stepped forward, lips somehow still fixed in a stiff smile. “I think you’ll find I saved you the trouble, sir.”

“What do you mean, Neil?”

Burnside stepped forward in answer and placed the folder he had been carrying under his arm atop C’s desk. Peele looked inquisitive. Burnside could feel Morgan’s eyes on him.

Gibbs narrowed his eyes, “What’s this?”

Burnside supposed he should be comforted with the fact that at least he’d beaten them to it, small and bitter comfort as it was.

“My resignation, sir.”

Burnside went into his office to pack up his effects. There was, of course, the mandatory two-week notice, but Burnside found now that, although he’d been there for five-years, he somehow couldn’t bear to spend another unnecessary moment in his stifling, crowded office, nor the entire building for that matter. Both Gibbs and Peele had not objected, Peele had even suggested with a half-hearted jibe that at least now Burnside could use up a bit of the accumulated holiday time. Morgan, of course, would be anxious to take over his new office.

He searched the office for anything of his that had gathered there over the past years, when his office had sometimes acted more as apartment than his own flat had. There were his own books interspersed on the bookshelves among the Service’s, paperweights, and a silly sort of desk toy Willie had gotten him as a gag.

He tucked a half-finished packet of cigarettes into his pocket, as well as a lighter he’d missed on his search through the desk that first day back from Malta. He upended half the contents of the drawers into the rubbish bin without any further contemplation. He heard the door to his office swing open and Marianne cleared her throat softly to let him know who it was, even though he already knew it was her.

“I suspect you’ll be campaigning your silly Sandbagger aspirations to the new D-Ops?” he said finally, stuffing a roll of papers into the already full bin.

“Yes, sir,” she said simply.

“I’m happy to see you’re taking advantage of my departure,” said Burnside acidly.

“Actually,” she said shortly, “I think you should know that I advocated for you remaining as D-Ops.”

Burnside looked away from her blazing, glimmering eyes, “Well, a lot of good that did both of us. C probably thinks you support me now. He seems to want to purge the Service of that particular breed.”

He looked back at her but she had looked away, staring out the window. “Yes, sir.”

There was a sticky, lingering silence and Burnside could hear the clock ticking over the doorway, steadily counting down his last remaining moments in the building.

“I know I’m not D-Ops anymore, Marianne, so you aren’t officially my PA, but will you ring Jeff Ross? Tell him I’m sorry but I can’t meet him for lunch, but I’ll see him at the club later for drinks.”

“Of course, sir,” she smiled then, sadly. For a moment Burnside was worried she might cry and that was something he simply could not contend.

“Alright then,” Burnside said briskly, “nothing else here. Tell Wallace I was sorry I couldn’t see him on his return.”

“He’ll be sorry he missed you.”

“I rather doubt it, but the sentiment was nice,” said Burnside, making his way into the outer office, Marianne following him. “You’re well on your way to becoming an accomplished liar – something that will serve you well if you ever do become a Sandbagger.”

She smiled again and Burnside found it almost so painful he had to turn away.

“Good luck, sir.”

“And to you,” Burnside turned his back on her. “I guess when it’s your name in the obituaries it’ll be a comfort to know that it wasn’t on my watch.”

He shut the door behind him before she had any chance to reply.

The club was crowded so Jeff was standing at the bar. A slow and heavy tune was playing through the speakers. Jeff looked over as Burnside came through the door and something in the grim look on his face told Burnside that he already knew about everything. Burnside didn’t know if that somehow made it better or even worse.

He weaved through the tables and the waitresses carrying packs of cigarettes and drinks on trays until he’d reached Jeff.

“Hey, Neil,” said Jeff, voice heavy.

“Hello, Jeff.”

Jeff already had a half-finished drink in front of him. “The usual?” he asked Burnside.

Burnside found the somber look in Jeff’s eyes to be almost oppressive and didn’t look at him as he attracted the bartender’s attention by wrapping his knuckles on the counter. The bartender looked over and Burnside said briskly, a hint of bitterness seeping through his voice, “Scotch and soda.”

*Cue music*
baggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sandbaggers The Sa