As he rounded the corner on his way from tube station to office, Neil noticed the newspapers were headlining yesterday’s hostage taking in East Africa. Lutara had been a disastrous president; but the dictatorship that had taken power after his death really wasn’t any better. These days, holding people for political ransom appeared to be flavour of the month for leaders of a certain persuasion, sadly highly represented in the latest power bloc in East Africa. Perhaps they were copying Khomeini in Iran – or more properly, the hotheads who now flourished there. (He absolved that country’s leaders of actually getting their hands dirty; but they had done nothing effective to stop it either.) Neil wondered just how long it would take to negotiate a release for this lot (hopefully not quite as long as with Iran). Though it would help to know exactly who they held. Ensuring an accurate list had been compiled would be his first job for today. He’d left instructions about it last night as soon as the news had broken. If the Intelligence Directorate couldn’t do that task in one night they were overdue for a shake up.
“Coffee,” he said tersely in passing to the young blonde in the outer office, heading straight for his own. Damn Willie for taking Mary with him when he moved from Int to Ops; it had left him with that fluffy young thing. She never thought to have coffee waiting for his arrival; and when she did bring it, the brew was often undrinkable. He sat behind his desk and lit a cigarette before reaching for the top folder on the pile waiting for him.
“And get those damned posters down,” he barked at the girl when she placed his cup on the desk. “I told you last month I didn’t need a tatty lot of outdated travel agent’s advertising cluttering up the room.”
Neil frowned as she reached up for the nearest poster, revealing rather a lot of upper thigh in the process; but the phone rang, distracting him. He picked it up before it could ring a second time.
“D.Int. - Yes, I have the list of hostages here. - No, not yet. - Really? - I’ll come over.” The receiver clattered back into its cradle abruptly as Neil shoved back his chair and rose, folder in hand.
“I’ll be with D.Ops.”
The hapless secretary hadn’t even tried to get the phone, and now didn’t even turn round from the posters as he strode out. No backbone that one - she’d never do.
* * * * *
“The situation, as we have it from Herr Torvig, Neil,” started Jeff, without preamble, “is that the Norwegians have one of our people and five of yours in hiding at their embassy at Kintasa. They’ve asked for help in getting them out – SIS help to be exact, although clearly we Americans have a vested interest in the outcome as well.”
“Do we have a full list of who found their way to the Norwegian embassy?” Neil asked.
“Here: six people,” Willie passed over a single sheet of paper. “You might be interested in number five on the list,” he added, as Neil scanned it, and felt a moment of satisfaction to see his ex-boss’ left eyebrow raise as he reached the name in question. Neil flipped open the brown cardboard folder he had brought with him, his eyes scanning only part way down the page until he found what he was looking for: Sir Geoffrey Wellingham and wife.
* * * * *
“Not to mention the fact this operation provides an excellent opportunity to further ties with a key NATO ally,” said Peele. “The Norwegians asked for our help, not the Americans’, which I view as highly significant.”
“That’s all very well, Sir,” said Burnside, “but the Norwegians are rank amateurs at this business; involving them as they want is likely to place the entire operation in jeopardy.”
“I’m well aware of your views about the Norwegians, Neil,” answered Peele, “but you need to remember we simply wouldn’t be in the position of mounting any rescue operation had they not acted quickly and decisively when the crisis developed. Plus we have a duty to support the counterintelligence capabilities of a nation without which the Russians would be on our doorstep.”
“So it’s agreed, then,” said Gibbs. “All that remains is to choose the method, a matter I leave to you,” he nodded pointedly at Willie Caine, “though I’m sure Mr Burnside will give you all the intelligence assistance he has at his fingertips from his sources in East Africa, not to mention any previous missions there.” Gibbs’ icy glance at Neil left no one in doubt about his views on that front.
“Well one thing’s for sure: we can’t do what the Canadians did the other year,” said Willie. “The whole world heard about the fake film crew. The East African lot may be mad but they’re not stupid: they’ll be watching for just such a ploy used again.”
“For the same reason, all movements through the airport will be monitored closely, so there’ll be no quick exit either,” said Neil. “They’ll be on the watch for embassy personnel they may not have scooped up in the attack, and looking for people trying to make a quick exit.”
“You’ll have to use an overland route, then,” said Peele.
“With a group of six, plus the people we send to get them! That’s not exactly inconspicuous.” Caine’s tone was despairing, “Not to mention the age of Lady Wellingham.”
“She’s a strong woman,” said Neil.
“However spry she is for her years, she is 60, and will hardly be up to roughing it in the African bush.” Peele shook his head sadly. “I’m less concerned about the Norwegians than I am about the impact of Lady Wellingham on the escape plans.”
“Gentlemen, however you contrive it, it must be done.” Gibbs’ coolness admonished. “I would suggest if the usual approach cannot work, you come up with something different.”
* * * * *
“Duty Ops.” The officer of the day – fresh this morning, unlike the rest of the men in the room – was quick to answer the phone’s ring. “Are you expecting a Herr Torvig?” he asked Neil.
“Are you?” Burnside looked pointedly at Caine.
Willie rolled his eyes. “I suppose you’d best have him shown down.”
“Have the man escorted down to the Ops room,” the Duty Officer. He looked at the tired group round the table, “and best bring some more coffee with him.” He began shuffling through the papers on the table, organising them. “I guess you’ll be going through this one more time.
“Mr Burnside,” Torvig burst out, almost as soon as he entered. “I will not be put off any longer. I have had assurances from the highest authority that you will be mounting an operation; and we Norwegians will not be excluded! The CIA is here; we should be here too!”
“Your sources had it wrong, Herr Torvig,” replied Burnside calmly. “I am not mounting any sort of operation, since I am not Director of Operations at SIS – and have not been for some time, might I add. But as it happens, my colleague is.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Neil could see Jeff shaking his head in resignation, before he got to his feet, and offered the irate little Norwegian his own chair. Trust the American to smooth ruffled feelings of this awkward ally.
“Herr Torvig, Willie and I were just about to call you....”
* * * * *
* * * * *
“Mr Caine, Sir,” announced the secretary, as she showed him through to Jeff’s office.
“Herr Torvig,” Willie greeted his Norwegian counterpart who stood with his back to the room, staring through the window at the gardens below.
He turned politely and held out his hand. “Mr Caine.” His gaze searched over Willie’s head, and a slight frown creased his forehead. “Mr Burnside is not joining us?”
“He was unavoidably detained,” said Willie. “Any news?” Caine asked Ross.
“We know the CARE packages landed six hours ago. And we’ve had confirmation Karen Milner boarded the scheduled Pan-Am Flight 841 from Kintasa to Heathrow; she should be landing in about...” Jeff looked at his watch, “hmm...thirty minutes. It will take her some time to get through customs, and then here, so I don’t really expect her in anything less than an hour and a half, perhaps longer.”
“An hour and a half!” exclaimed Torvig. “But I had understood from your secretary –” He broke off abruptly; a tic at the left corner of his mouth showed the level of his agitation. “I am expected to brief my ambassador in an hour. It is the first real operation we have ever done. You understand, all the previous things we mounted were in the way of training exercises. He is anxious nothing should go wrong.”
“Waiting can be nerve-wracking,” Ross’ voice was easy and soothing. “Unfortunately, I believe the Kintasa flight was delayed taking off; my secretary should have informed you. Another coffee while we wait?”
“No, no,” said Torvig, “I cannot keep the ambassador waiting. He was delaying another meeting to give me the time to meet you before I briefed him.” There was a short pause while he considered his options. “But since it will be at least another hour and a half –”
“Two hours if you consider that Karen will need a little time to debrief to us,” put in Willie.
“Then I will have to go,” said Torvig. He looked at Ross, “You will keep me informed, please?”
“Any information I have, you’ll have,” Ross assured.
Willie looked bland until the door had closed behind the Norwegian; then he shot a dry look at Jeff. “Just what time will Karen be here?”
“About ten minutes, I should think. What gave it away?”
“Well your secretary might have forgotten to ring Torvig about a delay; but I was speaking with her just before setting out, and I damned well know she told me the flight was on time.”
“And Burnside?” asked Jeff, “’Unavoidably detained’?”
“Now that was true,” said Willie. “The last I saw, there was a very determined Belinda Wellingham in his office demanding to know what Neil was doing to rescue her parents from the clutches of terrorists.”
“If he doesn’t find Karen Milner attractive after that....” Jeff shook his head slowly, as he sat down in an armchair. The two men grinned at one another in harmony.
“Coffee? I’d offer something stronger; but we are on company premises and the latest administration frowns on offering firewater to the natives.”
“I don’t suppose you thought to bring some sustenance, did you? Never mind....” Ross reached back to press a button on the intercom on his desk, “Sweetheart, make yourself useful and get us some chow, would you? My SIS colleague here is famished, and my guess is Karen will want something when she gets in – not to mention me.”
“Ask and you shall receive, O Lord!” said Karen from the door. “As it happens I picked up fish and chips along the way.”
Not for the first time Willie regretted keenly being in a wheelchair: she deserved a deep bow for impeccable timing. As it was he simply applauded her entrance.
* * * * *
“I’d just like to know how it is you pinched my secretary the moment my back was turned,” complained Willie.
“Hardly ‘the moment’,” retorted Burnside. “Besides, after the stunt that bubble-head pulled this morning, she just had to go. I told Personnel to send me someone with a modicum of sense and they sent Mary back.”
“Well I like that! Mary’s my secretary.”
“No she’s an SIS secretary – one who happens to know the intelligence side of the business through and through, and who should never have been moved to Ops to begin with.”
“There’s no arguing with you when you’re in this kind of mood,” opined Willie. “You’re just cranky because of Belinda.”
“Exactly. That useless girl let her in to see me. When I pointed out that lapse in security to Personnel, they saw the force of my argument and made the appropriate manpower decision.”
“Breach of security?” Willie was scathing. “She’s been vetted five ways to Sunday: daughter of the PUS, ex-wife of a Sandbagger. You’ve forgotten I was best man at your wedding. The trouble is, you just can’t deal with the fact Belinda may look like her mother; but she’s much more her father’s daughter.”
“Leave it Willie.” Burnside looked suddenly tired.
“And my secretary?”
“They said they could find you a replacement more easily than me.”
“If you didn’t have such a reputation as an ogre, it wouldn’t be that way. But the whole typing pool’s heard how you chew your secretaries up and spit them out for breakfast.” Willie weathered a withering look from Neil. He might as well accept gracefully; he wouldn’t win.
“How did Karen Milner’s debriefing go?”
“All on track,” Willie replied. “She made a sprightly old lady going into the country; and then – sans disguise and sans Lady Wellingham’s new passport – turned into a young German sightseer hurriedly cutting her holiday short after the recent troubles. She was less than pleased at having to travel tourist class (not the usual CIA style); but it would have blown cover for her to have paid for business class.”
“And in between?”
“All on track. It took some persuasion to get CARE to agree to us taking over the relief tour, but in the end they saw the force of our arguments.
“You mean the Ops budget is now considerably lighter of funds,” retorted Burnside.
Willie shrugged. “In the end they agreed. Mike’s taken charge of babysitting the Norwegians. There was no problem getting the supplies through customs; and the group set off on its travels an hour before Karen checked in for her return flight.”
“And no suspicions were raised about someone of Lady Wellingham’s age joining the relief group? After all, she is the most conspicuous of the missing embassy people.” Burnside asked.
“One woman of her description travelling on a Norwegian passport seen going into the country – apparently the same woman seen joining the CARE team. As you said, they were looking for someone already in the country not someone entering. Karen said she encountered minimal checks on the way into the country, but careful scrutiny on exit. Yes, they know some of the embassy staff are missing from their roundup; so they’re keeping close watch. But, why would they suspect an old lady who arrived after the embassy was taken over, and who is not only planning to stay, but planning to go in-country?”
* * * * *
The embassy staff were pretty amazing. None was a trained operative; yet they all maintained cover, day in, day out. There were a couple of slips; but all things considered (and given they were all civilians) one would have expected more. The one person he’d thought would cause the most difficulties was actually the least trouble. Lady Wellingham – Jean, he must think of her always as Jean, and not even slip up in his thoughts, lest he slip up when it counted – never faltered, despite her age and the arduousness of their travels. Each night she was the last to retire; each morning up as soon as the sun had risen.
“I met Geoffrey in East Pakistan – that’s Bangladesh now, but it wasn’t back then when he was posted there, a very junior attaché,” she explained, when they shared a coffee late one night.
“I know,” said Mike. “We learned about the partition in school.”
“Well, I was Geoffrey’s secretary,” Lady Wellingham continued. “After we were married – well, really, until my daughter Belinda started school – I used to accompany my husband,” she said, “and he didn’t get the plum postings back then, which meant I saw a number of Third World countries. He would busy himself with the politics; while I would learn something about the country. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this kind of work. It’s how I met Neil. And that’s how he met Belinda.”
Mike had been careful not to mention anything about SIS to anyone in the group (some of whom, he was pretty sure, barely knew of its existence, still less about Sandbaggers). Somehow it didn’t surprise Mike, however, that she had identified him as an SIS operative, and Burnside as his former boss. The more he saw of Lady Wellingham, the more he realised she was much more than just a society wife.
* * * * *
“The Norwegians are, of course, taking the lion’s share of the credit, despite the fact they could never have pulled it off without our help,” noted Peele.
“That was to be expected – we must never forget we wouldn’t have had any rescue had they not given shelter in the first place.” Gibbs handed a copy of the Telegraph to Caine and the Times to Burnside.
Neil’s eyebrow rose as he looked at the inside pages. “Far better for pictures of their operatives to be in the paper, rather than ours.”
Willie shook his head, “Complete amateurs.”
“And the two of you,” said Gibbs, “you’ve worked well together.”
“Yes, indeed,” the Deputy C remarked, looking pointedly at Neil. “Set aside any natural jealousy you might have once felt that Willie succeeded to what was once your position; put the needs of the service first. I must say it is very good, at last, to see such a high level of cooperation between D.Int and D.Ops. Truly efficient.”
“When can we expect Wallace back?” asked C. “He’ll need to be carefully debriefed.”
“He’s catching a commercial flight that leaves Nairobi just a half hour after the special charter flight bringing the escapees home, so he’ll be back later today,” said Willie. “Neil and I thought we would debrief him tomorrow, after he’s had the chance to get a good night’s sleep. Unless, of course, you feel it needs to be done tonight; but his plane doesn’t get in until very late.”
“No, tomorrow will do,” said Gibbs. “After all, the crisis is past, now.”
* * * * *
“Couldn’t wait till tomorrow, I see,” he greeted Mike at the entrance to his flat, holding the door wide for the younger man. “Pleasant flight?”
“It was a joy after the media circus in Nairobi,” replied Mike.
“What, not the safari trek through East Africa?” asked Willie.
“You know that actually went quite smoothly.”
“Saw lots of exotic animals, did you?” joked Willie.
“Not really,” said Mike, “that drought really has bit deep into the land. But you were right; they weren’t expecting the long route through the countryside and just waved us through at the border crossing once we got there.”
“Was Father worried about his star pupil?” joked Mike.
“I knew you’d be all right,” said Willie, “but it’s a long time to be out of contact. Nerve-wracking you know – waiting I mean. Easier in some ways to be in the field than back at base.”
As they’d talked, Willie had boiled the kettle and filled the cafetiere. Now he brought two mugs to the table where Mike was sitting. “Here – I figured only the real stuff would do after Kenya. Or I can get you something stronger if you’d like?”
“No, coffee will do.”
The two men sat for a moment in silence, sipping their drinks.
Eventually Willie started, “Look Mike, much though I know you love my coffee, you didn’t come here at this time of night for a drink.”
“No.” There was a long pause before Mike asked, “did you know he knew Lady Wellingham first? I always figured Burnside met his ex-wife first and then the in-laws.”
“Like normal people?” said Willie.
“Well...yes, I suppose.”
“No, I was with him on that trip; and I can tell you it was love at first sight – between Lady Wellingham and him. I think she saw him as the son she never had; and he just fell like a ton of bricks for her grace and charm. It brought out a side to him I’d never seen before, and have not seen since his marriage to Belinda Wellingham failed. You know I think the thing he regrets most about that is the loss of his mother-in-law. He’d move heaven and earth for her if he could. A little thing like engineering her escape through the wilds of Africa is nothing.”
“Do they know?” asked Mike, “up above, I mean.”
“Peele? No, definitely not,” came the reply, “but Gibbs is sure to.”
* * * * *
Until last week, that was, when there had been a marked change in his captors’ demeanour. Only one meal was now delivered each day, and that on an irregular schedule. Previously they had been allowed newspapers (true just the local ones, but even they were better than nothing). Now they were stopped. Most tellingly, a few days ago their usual guards had been changed and this new detachment – more in number than before – were stiff and openly hostile. Had there been some sort of attempt to free them? After the debacle in Iran, Wellingham thought that unlikely.
Reverie broken, Wellingham looked at his fellow hostage and smiled a bit acerbically. “Our usual Cordon Bleu menu, I suppose? And here I forgot to dress for dinner.”
Two large pots had been placed on the table in the dining room – one full of semolina, the other containing a sort of vegetable stew. The food might not be stylish but the crockery was; Wellingham still found it odd to be dining off the embassy’s Spode dinner service considering the circumstances. Like his compatriots he queued for the meagre meal, and in turn received a bowl and spoon which he took down to the other end of the table to eat.
“Letters from home!”
They were all opened, of course, before delivery; he wondered what the guards had made of his daughter’s ramblings about couture fashion and parties – no doubt viewed as symptomatic of a decadent culture. He did not rush when his name was called, but slowly put down his now empty bowl, took the proffered envelope, and made his way back to his usual chair beside the wide bay window, before really looking at what he had been handed. Wellingham’s breath caught; he pulled the letter open swiftly, looking straight to the end for his wife’s signature. His normally wintry blue eyes filled with summer. Neil...he should have trusted Neil.