Actions

Work Header

Operational Necessity

Work Text:

There is no moral precept that does not have something inconvenient about it. --Denis Diderot

 


February 1980

"I am not," Burnside said finally, "in the employ of the United States government." He stubbed his cigarette out on the bridge railing, mashing the filter against the concrete until it frayed.

Karen kept her hands in her pockets and turned her face toward the Thames. It was dark and greasy, muddy banks showing as the tide ran out. "I never said you were. Or should be. I'm certainly in no position to offer you a job."

That got a disparaging glare. "I am not reminding myself, Miss Milner," he said sharply. "I am reminding you. Our priorities are — or should be — rather different." He pushed himself back from the railing and strode away, footsteps echoing on the pavement. She watched him go, a slim figure, broadened a little by his overcoat, shoulders set and rigid in a way that communicated his frustration as clearly as his words ever would.

A barge churned upstream, midchannel, floating low under its load. Karen watched it for a moment, leaning against the rail, sniffing a little at the damp, then began walking back along the Embankment toward her flat.

That fellow in the khaki raincoat was watching her, she thought, but he'd been too far away to hear their conversation. She ignored him — better the tail you've spotted than the replacement you haven't. If anyone asked why she'd been meeting Burnside, she had a handful of reasons ready.

So Burnside didn't want handouts, not from her. Well. She'd done her job, she'd maintained deniability, and she'd done a hell of a big favor for the SIS's Director of Operations in the process. No matter how bitter he was about it, he owed her.

He thought she'd let him in on Ross' plan because she liked his looks. Arrogant man. She did like his looks. But she liked him being in her debt even better.

 


July 1974

She drove her knee up into his groin, knocking the breath out of him, then shoved him back onto the ground, coming to rest with her knees set on his arms, her weight bearing down on his chest, her swiftly-unholstered gun at his temple.

"Bang," she panted.

Jim Smith — which wasn't his name, of course, none of them were here under their own names — laughed ruefully. "Jesus, Carol, that hurt even with the cup."

"It was supposed to," she said crisply, rolling smoothly to her feet, the blue vinyl gym mat creaking under her weight. "You've got, what, sixty pounds on me? A girl's got to fight dirty."

"I guess," he muttered, reaching into his sweatpants to adjust himself before rising. She didn't offer him a hand up.

"She's quite right," said Perkins, their combat instructor, crossing the room, clipboard in hand. "There's no excuse, Smith, letting a little thing like Miller here beat the hell out of you."

"Sir," Smith said, shortly, not meeting the older man's eyes.

"That'll be all for today, Smith," Perkins said. "Hit the showers."

She could hear Smith cursing under his breath as he crossed the gym, headed toward the locker room. As well he should. Losing to her, now, after four months of training? When he had that kind of height and weight advantage? It didn't look good. For him.

"Walk with me, Miller," Perkins said to her, and she fell into step beside him. The bar clanged as the instructor pushed the gym door open. Virginia summer, all heat and humidity, fell on her still-sweating body. Cicadas hummed from the woods along the river, the noise rising and falling in waves. Perkins, hands clasping his clipboard behind his back, walked across the wide, mowed lawn.

"You're second-generation, aren't you?" Perkins said at last.

"Yes, sir. My father was an officer."

"Went down over Laos, didn't he?"

Carol nodded. The Company had done well by them, after her dad died. Paid off the mortgage on the house in Fairfax; found her mother a secretarial position with the USDA, tabulating corn yields or something; and, oh yes, put her through college. They'd called it a merit scholarship, but she knew perfectly well where the money was coming from.

Midway through junior year, her "Uncle Bill" had taken her out to dinner and asked if she'd like an internship. Two years later, here she was, down on the Farm. She'd aced the exams and she thought she'd be in the top five in the practical course. And she hadn't made an idiot of herself in front of the shrinks, either, which ought to count for something.

"Why are you here, Miller?"

"To do my job, sir. To fight Communism."

"Would you be willing to break the law, if your job required it?"

She hesitated, glancing over at Perkins. His expression was mild. "There's no right answer to that question, sir."

That got a half-smile, and a nod. They walked on, not speaking, until Perkins said, "Miller, I'm going to recommend your placement in Operations."

"Thank you, sir." It wasn't really a surprise, but she made sure she looked pleased.

 


May 1979

Carrie lifted the Diario from the top of the trash can and took it over to the bench, unfolding the newspaper beside her as she unwrapped her egg salad sandwich and unscrewed the cap of the thermos full of coffee she'd brought for lunch. It was another hot tropical morning, and she wished again that she didn't have to wear nylons to work. Well, there was no getting away from it, not under diplomatic cover, anyway — a pantsuit would be pushing it, for a junior member of staff, and even changing into her sneakers to walk at lunchtime had gotten her a few raised eyebrows from the Deputy Chief.

She didn't think he knew she was there under cover; he just figured she was another dumb blonde, working for State because she wanted to see the world. That was fine. Compartmentalization. This was her third posting, and she was used to being underestimated.

She took her time with the sandwich. No need to rush or look worried. She read an article about the opening of a new department store and another about a car accident on the Alameda, drank the last of her coffee, folded the paper, and put her thermos back together.

On the way out of the park she threw her sandwich wrapper in a second can. She felt a little bit sorry about the mayonnaise smeared on it, but it did add a certain versimilitude.

She signed in at the embassy's front desk and took the stairs down to the basement. It was cooler, down here, and that was better for some of their equipment. She rapped on Williams' door.

"Come in," he called out, his desk chair squealing as he turned toward the door. "Oh, it's you, Carrie."

"None other," she said brightly. "I've got that package we've been waiting for." She dropped the folded newspaper on his desk.

"That's a relief. I was starting to get worried, after he missed the drop yesterday."

She shrugged, keeping that little smile on her face. "You'll bring it upstairs when it's ready?"

"Absolutely."

Williams' transcript landed on her desk an hour later. She scanned through it, then glanced up at him. "You're sure about this?"

He nodded. "Went through it twice."

Carrie frowned. "Thanks. I'll take it to Burke."

Her superior didn't look pleased when he finished reading. "I'll wire Langley," he said, "but I want you to set up a meeting with Guzman." He tapped the edge of the paper against his desk. "It's time we did something about de la Torre."

She nodded. Burke wouldn't come out and say what he meant, not directly, but they both knew the sort of thing he had in mind. So would Guzman. "I'll place the signal this evening. We'll have heard back from Langley by then."

"I certainly hope so." He glanced up at her. "That will be all, Miss Mueller. I'll send Priscilla down once I've got the go-ahead." His shredder whirred briefly behind her as she left the room.

The afternoon crept away. The stack of visa applications on her desk, part of her cover duties, seemed to grow taller rather than shorter as she read through them. She flagged a few, passed most of them along to the next desk. There were a lot more applicants than there would be visas. Finally a canary-yellow slip of paper landed on her desk, dropped there by the perfectly-manicured hand of Priscilla, Burke's secretary.

"He says you'll know what this means," Priscilla said. The paper read, "Go."

She nodded. "Thank you."

"Be careful," Priscilla said, shortly, and left.

The thermos went into her bag, and so did her purse. She stopped at the bodega on the corner and picked up an apple and a box of chalk. The little white line she made across the red brick wall in front of the school would disappear, the next time it rained, or as soon as someone brushed up against it. Carrie tucked the chalk into her purse and bit into the apple. It was mealy. She ate it anyway.

At the apartment she changed, pulling on long pants and a dark sweater and putting a felt hat over her hair. She hesitated for a moment, then left her gun in the shoebox on the top shelf of her closet but took her embassy identification with her.

The sun was setting as Guzman settled onto the bench beside her. They watched the university students coming and going for a few minutes before he said, "Señorita Mueller. ¿Cómo puedo ayudarse?"

She didn't like Guzman; he wore a lot of cologne, and didn't smell very good under it. But he was well-connected, and in this business, you didn't always have the luxury of working with pleasant people. Guzman nodded when she told him about the Cubans, and de la Torre, and the arms shipment.

"Your ambassador — does he know?" the man asked, when she'd explained.

"You don't want to discuss this with anyone else," she said.

Guzman raised his eyebrows. "I see."

"Good."

She went home and took a shower. It isn't any better, getting someone else to do it, she thought, scrubbing at herself with a long-handled brush. At least when I'm getting my own hands dirty — she didn't let herself finish.

After that, it was a matter of waiting. Confirmation was a small chalked X, low on the concrete wall of a cafe Carrie walked past on her way to work three days later. The next morning brought a report in the local section of the Diario — a gas explosion in an apartment building on the city's north side. Late at night. Eight people dead. Among them, the leftist newspaper editor Reuben de la Torre, his wife Anamaria, and two children. A third child was in the hospital.

She folded the paper so the article was on the outside and left it, without comment, in Burke's in-box before he got in. Priscilla looked at it, glanced up at her, and dropped it back in the box, just a hint of a frown crossing her face.

The electric fan in Carrie's office broke, finally, around two o'clock. She sat, and sweated, and stamped DENIED on visa applications, and wondered if it were too soon to apply for a transfer. Somewhere colder.

 


October 1979

"You been in London before?" Jeff Ross asked, around a mouthful of sandwich.

"No, it's my first time." She'd come straight to the embassy from Heathrow and her new boss had promptly invited her out to lunch. You couldn't accuse the man of having highbrow tastes — they were at a McDonald's.

"It's a helluva town," he said, punctuating his remarks with a ketchup-covered french fry. "You can't get tired of a town like this. Everyone comes through here, sooner or later. Russians, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Chinese, it's like a great big buffet table. And we eat it all up." He popped the fry in his mouth. "Where have you been?"

"Langley, at first," Karen said, "and then I went through the operational training program, and after that — well, if I told you, I'd have to kill you," she finished, laughing a little at the old joke.

"Yeah, yeah. I can guess what they've had a cutie like you doing," he leered at her.

You have no idea, she thought, smiling back at him. "The usual. Lifts, drops —"

"A little of this, a little of that. Black bag stuff?"

She nodded.

"Wetwork?"

Karen raised an eyebrow.

"Good. I told them we needed someone who could tackle anything that came up." He gave her a sharp, appraising look that had nothing in common with the light tone of his voice. "Well, look, after we're done here, I'm taking you by Collingstone House. Introduce you to your local counterparts. They call themselves Sandbaggers. You'll be seeing a lot of them. Special relationship, you know." He chewed, then washed it down with a swallow of coffee. "I should tell you, things are different here than what you're used to."

"Oh?"

"Well, you still work for Uncle Sam. But sometimes Her Majesty gets to borrow you."

 


February 1980

"And what's my favorite Yankee doing in a pit like this, eh?" Willie Caine leaned over the back of her wicker chair. "Can I buy you a pint?"

"I showed the last assistant undersecretary off to the airport an hour ago, so I don't see why not," she answered. "Though in heat like this I'd rather have a gin and tonic."

"One G and T, coming up," he said. "Anything to eat?"

Karen shook her head. "Not from here. I've been eating hotel food all week. I swear, sometimes I think I'm keeping the free world safe from the wrong things."

Willie grimaced in response, then walked over to the bar and returned, passing her a dewy lowball glass wrapped in a paper cocktail napkin. "Cheers," he said, and she raised her glass.

"Here's to finishing the job."

"Ah, yes. The best feeling of all."

He quizzed her about her travel plans, groused about how SIS made him fly coach, and had the waiter bring her another drink when she finished her first.

"Now that I've got you relaxed," he said at last, "can I talk you into dinner? I know a little curry house on the south side of town."

"A curry in every port? My, Willie, you are English."

He waggled his eyebrows at her. "There have got to be some perks to this exciting life of international travel. Actually, it's a place the station second took me, my first night here. I got into Columbo a fortnight ago; they were so worried about security that they shipped me in a week before the conference started."

"Burnside's really able to do without you for that long?" If they'd had Willie doing nothing but babysitting diplomats for two weeks, she'd be amazed. What a waste. The Brits must be up to something; she made a note to mention it to Jeff. Who would probably know about it already.

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far," Willie replied casually. "He's got me calling him most nights, and there's been a cable in the diplomatic bag every morning. But Mike'll keep him from feeling too lonesome." He grinned. "And he'll have me back soon enough. Poor bastard."

"You and he seem —" she hesitated. "Close."

Willie's eyes narrowed, just a fraction, little enough that an untrained eye wouldn't have caught it. "We've worked together a long time now," he said smoothly. "Make a good team. Besides, close — your boss is the one who compliments you on your backside every time you walk into his office."

Karen waved a hand dismissively. "That's just Jeff. He's like that with all the girls. Ask around. They call me the Ice Princess, down in the typing pool."

"They don't," he said, feigning incredulity. "You?"

"I think," Karen said, smiling, "that you should take me out to dinner." There are all kinds of cover, she thought. Caine's expression told her that her opposite number heard what she wasn't saying.

"Excellent plan, Miss Milner," he said, rising. "May I?"

"Certainly," she answered. She settled her purse strap over her shoulder and tucked her hand in the elbow he offered.

It was a nice dinner and he was a nice man, surprisingly guileless for someone in their line of work. He told her about his mother in Surrey and a mission in Sofia where he thought he was pulling a roll of microfilm from a dead drop and it turned out to be a sack of dog shit, and she told him about her Uncle Buddy taking her duck hunting and the little pastries she used to buy for breakfast in San Salvador. He didn't press her, when she changed the subject, and she did the same for him, smiling over her wineglass into knowing eyes.

When he walked her back to her room she took his hand and pulled him through the door behind her. He screwed like he worked: patient and thorough, with a sort of resigned wit about the particulars that had her first giggling and then moaning. His voice was level until the very end, calm and filthy, and then he took her hips in his hands and pushed up into her, gasping.

She brushed her hair back from her face and pulled a handful of tissues from the box next to the bed, passed him a couple, and laid down, loose-jointed, pillowing her head on his shoulder. He dropped an arm around her shoulders and a kiss on the top of her head.

"I'm going to have to report this to the station," he said, after a moment.

She tipped her head back and frowned up at him. "Likewise. Of course."

"We understand each other, then."

She hummed in agreement and pulled the blanket up.

 


March 1980

"It's not you, Karen," Jeff said, regretfully. "It's Burnside."

"Oh?" She found her hand tightening around the edge of her seat and consciously relaxed it. It had been obvious that there was bad news, as soon as he closed the door behind her. The question was, how bad.

"I don't think — look, I told you about that business with Laura Dickens." Jeff wouldn't meet her eyes.

"The Sandbagger they lost in Berlin last year."

"Yeah. Look, it's not fair, I know that, but we have to work with the guy, and he's, well, he's not progressive like I am. Has issues with women."

She managed not to laugh. First he'd tried to push her into bed with the man, and now he was using him as an excuse to get rid of her. "Burnside's certainly been ready enough to ask you to loan me out."

"I know it. I know it. I'm sorry, Karen, it's not your fault, but I've got to do something to get back in his good graces." He fidgeted with his pen, glanced up at her and then back at his blotter.

"Are you asking for my resignation, Jeff?" Her voice sounded brittle, despite her best efforts.

"No! No, nothing like that. I just — well, we're going to reassign you. But look, I've written you a really strong letter of recommendation, made it clear that this isn't your fault, that you've been doing excellent work."

"I see."

"And I've approved two weeks' leave for you. Go home, see your folks, clear your head." He grinned at her, but she could see the nervousness under it. "Be good for you. Relaxing."

Seeing her mother, relaxing? The man had no idea. Karen forced a smile onto her face and rose. There was no sense in arguing, and there was no sense in letting him see how she felt. She'd wanted — she'd wanted something cleaner. She'd thought she had it, maybe. Apparently not. "I'm sure I'll enjoy that," she managed.

"I knew you'd understand," Jeff said.

"Of course I do." She understood perfectly well. She wasn't stupid. "I'll go clean out my desk." She kept that smile there until she was out in the hallway, and then it fell off her face like a plate in a wet hand, smashing on the floor.