Ford wasn't a big believer in the whole teamwork thing. He preferred to do his derring and to hell with the rest of it, all the bullshit, the camaraderie and knowing people's names and trading smiles in passing in the sodding hallway. A man of action, that's what he was. Give him a gun and a nice pair of shoes, and get the fuck on with it.
He knew his handler, of course. They had as close a working relationship as any, him and Sharon, with the tits, and the three kids she mentioned on occasion, and the loser ex-wife that followed the loser ex-husband. Them she talked about quite a bit.
Together they were a well-oiled espionage machine, meaning that Sharon did all the paperwork and occasionally listened in on Rick's comms enough to know when to send in a medical team.
(Not, strictly speaking, that he always needed a team when she sent one in. He dug that chunk of shrapnel out of his thigh with no antiseptic, anaesthetic, or apparatus, didn't he? It was insulting that she thought he would need medics or evac for something as ridiculous as breaking one or two legs, honestly.)
Sharon was also great at getting the brass off his balls. Crocker took her out to lunch a couple of times. Director Betty liked her enough to grunt almost approvingly when she spoke up in a meeting, and the old man didn't grunt almost approvingly at anyone. Whatever she had done to defuse the situation after Tripoli must have been magic, because it had only taken six hours to get him on the active duty roster after his casts came off. Now he was back, it was an easy job to remember not to let his appreciation show. The slightest hint that he needed Sharon for anything—other than a mostly anonymous target for ribaldry or to remember he needed the bamboo-fiber socks in tropical climates—and some other arsehole of an agent would swoop in and spirit her away before he could spit out a protest.
Not like it would be the first time.
It was better this way, keeping his distance. Which was why he did it, obviously. A nice healthy distance from Sharon and her messy personal life, her restless kids, and her roving eye. Better, too, to stay away from the rest of the Ops staff in the basement, especially the cuddly one who'd always had a sweet smile for him in the briefing room. Susan Cooper, she of the training video Ford definitely didn't upload to a cloud server so he could watch whenever the mood struck.
Leave 'em all to their big monitors and their apparently enormous party budget and their wasted fucking talents because certain people couldn't bear to let anyone else steal the spotlight, and let Ford get on with the business of being Ford. The lone wolf, righting the world's wrongs, one terrorist at a time. It was foolproof. Not a flaw to it.
Right up until he heard Sharon sniffling on an open mic.
He shoved the nearest thug out the window and spun a kick into the absurdly sculpted cheekbone of the next. The cracking sound and strangled scream made a nice counterpoint to the splashing and gurgling from the canal outside. A quick hogtie and coerced confession later, he had the jewels in hand. Interpol could clear up the rest. Least they could do after leaving him cooling his heels in Copenhagen for the better part of a week, the dozy pricks.
Ford signed off the comm for the record and yanked the bud out of his ear to grind it underfoot. Getting his pay docked for the replacement after every mission was a small price for being able to melt into the crowd when he wanted.
He pulled out his mobile and punched in the only number he had memorized.
"For God's sake, Ford, they can trace your phone as easily as they can trace the earbud."
"Cut the shit, Sharon. What's going on?"
"I found a seat for you tomorrow night on a NATO flight out of Karup. But, in the interest of getting you out before Lindgren can decide whether to press charges, if you can get over to Thule by sunset, there's a pilot owes you a favor. Gaspara, from that thing in Milan. She says she can have you stateside by morning." Sharon was aiming for businesslike—nearly managed it, in fact—but there was an alarming wobble in her voice. Ford ground his teeth and started running for the bridge.
"Why do I need to be back in the morning? Why are you crying?" Rick stepped out in front of a garish hatchback, timing it just right so the panicked driver would stop in time. He pulled the sweaty young man from behind the wheel and climbed inside. Before he pulled into traffic, he closed his eyes for a second, trying to remember which kid it was Sharon was worried about last weekend. "It's not Miguel, is it? He didn't steal another car, did he? I told him—"
"It's not Miguel," she managed, before she started crying in earnest.
Ford gripped his mobile so hard the plastic groaned. "Sharon!"
Her voice was replaced with another, one so sugary-sweet that it went straight to his gut. "Sharon needs to step out for a moment, Agent Ford. I see you turned off your comms. Why don't you let me know where you are, and I'll get you to the nearest extraction point?"
"Fuck that. Why's she gotta step out? So help me, Cooper, you better tell me what the hell is going on."
"Oh. You— You know who I am?" She was breathless with surprise, her voice low and pleased. Rick filed that tidbit away for later. Plenty of time once he had a little more privacy than a cramped European hatchback barrelling through the middle of Copenhagen.
"Is it Pepper?" he demanded. "Did something happen to the baby?"
"No, both the girls are okay. It was her father, Agent Ford. He died in his sleep," Cooper told him.
The world whited out for a brief second as Ford tried to process. Gerry? Jesus. And so soon after Margene. What the fuck had Sharon been thinking, coming in to work?
Cooper was still talking. "Just last night. Nancy and I tried to get her to stay home today but you know how she is when you're on the clock."
Big men didn't cry, except over important things like Arsenal hat tricks and devastating emotional blows. At length he was able to tell her, "Fuck the clock, and fuck the extraction point."
There was a rustling noise, then Cooper's voice again, a harsh whisper. "Stay on the line, Agent Ford." More noises he couldn't quite place, and a long interminable wait during which he swung past the Christiansborg Palace at least twice without registering anything but grey blurs.
Gerry, gone. It didn't seem possible. How was Sharon going to manage? Shit, how was he? Ford couldn't leave it all up to her, not after everything she'd done for him, and with those kids underfoot ... Christ, and she'd left them alone to cover his ass? What the fuck had she been thinking? He was her lowest priority. He was everyone's lowest priority. It was easier that way. That was why he chose to stay at the back of the room, deflect the smiles with a stony look, keep his hands to himself when he longed to reach out for who— what he wanted. That was why he never should have learned Sharon's kids' names, or helped her hustle the latest shitty ex out of the house in the middle of the night. Never awkwardly stood with her smearing snot and tears and makeup all over his shoulder while one of the kids slept on the other. Never shook Gerry's hand or poured him into bed when he fell off the wagon after his wife of forty-plus years died.
"It's going to be okay, Ford," Cooper said, her voice as soft as her skin. She made soothing noises in his ear, and Ford felt every one of them all the way across an ocean and more.
He'd pulled the car over at some point, thank fuck. Sniveling over the phone at a woman you'd wanted to fuck for the better part of a decade was bad enough without pointing a quarter-ton of inexpert engineering at a crowd of unsuspecting bicyclists.
"Screw okay," he said as carefully as he could when his throat tried to close up around every syllable.
Cooper was made of sterner stuff than he thought. "Well, that's no way to talk," she chided. "Now, Sharon's got the name of a pilot here who can get you home fast, but it might be faster to catch a ride yourself from Copenhagen. Can you handle that?"
Ford gritted his teeth and swung back out into traffic. What did she take him for? "I can handle anything, sweetheart. Swam across Suncheon Bay with your Twatley strapped to my back, didn't I?"
Her voice took on a hard edge that shot straight through him like a taser bolt. "I don't appreciate that kind of language about Agent Fine, Agent Ford."
After that, she was quiet so long Ford checked the phone to see if they'd been disconnected.
Fuck. "Sorry," he grumbled.
"That's not how I heard it went in Suncheon anyway," she said, so softly he wasn't sure he was meant to hear.
Ford remembered now that had been before she took up a desk in the basement. No doubt Fine had fed her some ridiculous lie about single-handedly busting the razor clam ring, instead of bungling his part so badly he would have drowned if not for Ford. Not that it mattered. Got the job done, didn't he? Who cared what some starry-eyed handler who couldn't sort the bollocks from the truth thought?
Still, he had to admit that Fine's fieldwork was immeasurably better since he poached Cooper from the pool. It didn't take a genius to see why, which was lucky, because Ford had never had any delusions about being one.
He cleared his throat. "There's a private hangar on the west side of the airport here. Used it a few years back. See what flight plans are already filed while I find a way through the fence."
"Uh, I could, but I'm kind of ... Hold on!" More of that irritating rustling, then she said, muffled, "Hi, Nancy! Yeah, oh, just a little indigestion, you know. I'll be back in there in a few minutes."
Around the next curve Ford had to brake sharply to avoid hitting a Peugeot overflowing with teenagers. In the distance, he saw a disabled lorry in the middle of the intersection with traffic backed up around it in all directions. Steam billowed from under the lorry's bonnet.
Ford cursed and tucked the phone against his shoulder, then angled his car up over the curb into the cycling lane. He shot around the congestion, then careened down the last street before the airport. He slowed the car to a crawl and leaned forward to peer between the buildings to see how far back the security fence started.
"Agent Ford," Cooper hissed, "I can't get into the database without letting someone know where you are and what you intend to do. Or," she added, as if it were an inconsequential afterthought, "that I'm helping you do it."
"So, I can hear Crocker yelling from here and she's six floors above me. You didn't secure the scene or the evidence, you didn't wait for backup, you kicked the liaison in the... in the..."
"In the balls, Cooper, and he's lucky he was already down or I would have exploded his throat with that kick."
"But you didn't explode his, uh... You know, I don't think it's possible, technically, to—" Ford tuned out the rest while he pulled into a small weed-choked parking area and killed the engine. Rather than disconnect the call, he dropped the phone on the passenger seat. If they could trace him through it, probably better to leave it there.
A quick rifle through the glove compartment and under the seats yielded an ugly hat, the crumbling remains of a joint, and a stained t-shirt he quickly swapped for his own. When he opened the door, the keys were still in the ignition and an irritating chiming started. With a grumbled curse, he slid out of the car and shut the door. From inside, quite clearly, despite the distance and the whine of a jet overhead, he heard Cooper's blistering yell.
"RICHARD WHATEVER-YOUR-MIDDLE-NAME-IS FORD."
He had the door open again and the phone in hand before she could bellow at him a second time. "What happened to not letting anyone know you're helping me?" he demanded.
"What happened to your goddamn training? You never leave your handler twisting in the wind like that, you reckless—"
"Oh, are you my handler now? Cos I definitely got a few things you could get a handle on."
"You coc—" She cut herself off and blew out a breath so hard Ford swore he could feel it tickling against the side of his face. He stuck a finger in his other ear to block out the noise and grinned big enough to break his jaw when he heard her counting backward from twenty.
"All right," he said. "Pax. Truce. Whatever. We can pick that up another time. I'm ten yards out from a security fence that's seen better days. If you can't get a look at the flight plans, what can you do?"
"I can walk you through preflight and cruising on any private aircraft built after 2001."
Ford rolled his eyes. Any moron worth his weight in agency credentials should be able to do that. "I'm certified. I did the same flight training as everyone else."
"Oh, I didn't know you— I mean, Fine doesn't—" Of course he didn't. Fine had taken one look at the simulator during training and puked all over his own shoes.
"You really know how to fly?" She was back to sounding skeptical. Ford wished she'd go back to yelling at him. Really got his blood pumping, let him forget everything else. Maybe he could convince her to do it on a more regular basis.
"If I didn't, how'd I set the agency record for safe landings in a single day? How was I the first recruit to land the hijacked charter with only one good eye and two arms in casts?" Technically it was only an eyelash making one eye water uncontrollably and two makeshift slings he slipped his arms out of at the first opportunity, but hey.
"Wow, really? When I did that scenario, I fell out of one of the simulators and somehow got hit by another on the way down. Bruises like you wouldn't believe."
Ford made a mental note to try to scrounge up that video to add to his collection.
"If you don't need my help getting out of Denmark, what can I do?"
Quit wasting your life fetching old Twatney Whine's lunch was the first thing to spring to mind. Well, the second, but he didn't think let me get you wet and breathless would go over all that well. Not yet, anyway.
Before he could stop it, his mouth opened and out spilled: "Take Sharon home, would you, love? She shouldn't be alone." His throat threatened to close up again and it took a good half-dozen hard blinks to get the tears to roll back. "Tell her I'll take care of everything when I get there."
Ford didn't want to wait for her reply, to hear her agree or argue, but he couldn't pull the phone away from his ear.
"I will," she promised, her voice so soft and sweet again he wanted to sink down into her and pretend the world was exactly as he'd left it that morning. "Brad— Fine's en route to Varna, so I can get Nancy to cover— Sorry, you don't care about that. You just get yourself home in one piece, Rick. Everything else can wait."
Not everything, Ford thought, as he said goodbye and threw the phone away. He'd already wasted enough time.