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An unusual offer

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~~~

The sun was coming over the horizon when Calliope stretched out her aching back, before turning her computer off. She looked like a student who had been pulling an all-nighter, but the truth was different.

She had spent the night in more nefarious pursuits. Cally’s old school friend, a low-level journo, had asked her to look into a backbench politician. He was suspected of selling his vote to the highest bidder. Her friend was looking for his big break and not too fussy about how he got it. So, Cally was revisiting the hacking skills developed during a misspent youth, and trawling through some secure government servers to see if his tip was true. Normally, she would have told him to get lost, but she needed money at the moment, and this was a start.

Here she was then, at 6am on a grey London Saturday, having spent the night ferreting around in supposedly highly protected information. Cally’s friend was right. The politician was corrupt. To make matters worse, it was being hushed up by those in the higher echelons of the civil service. Evidence of all this was now safely on a USB drive ready to pass on. But this wasn’t everything she had found.

During her search, she had noticed some strangely encrypted files. Never one to pass up a challenge, Cally had spent the past few hours trying cracking into them. At first, she wasn’t sure she would be able to make any headway, but without too much effort, she blasted into them. This was a major buzz and she had forgotten how brilliant it felt.

Once in, she had a quick scout around, found some interesting information, and got out swiftly. What an amazing way to chase her boredom away.

I have something for you. Meet me at the café on the corner at 8. You’re buying. – Cally

~~~

Mycroft Holmes was surprised by the dossier on the recent hack he was eventually handed. He had half a dozen so-called geniuses working for him, but it had still taken nearly two hours to compile this information. However, it proved worth the wait. Calliope Williams was very interesting, but her current behaviour seemed to break her established pattern. She would merit a personal visit. She might prove to be the solution to a problem that had been bothering him for some time.

He pushed to his feet, brushing down his trousers and tugging his suit jacket straight. Sending a message for his car, Mr Holmes collected his coat and umbrella and made his way out of his office.

~~~

Something wasn’t right. Cally couldn’t say what. But something was wrong. Pepper spray in hand she quietly slid her key into her front door lock. She pushed the door open, praying it wouldn’t creak. Everything seemed normal in her dingy little flat. Obviously, she was just being silly. She dropped her keys on the coffee table and went into her kitchen. And screamed.

In fact, it was more of a gasp than a scream. She didn’t have enough breath to get any decent volume. The immaculately dressed man sitting at her tiny kitchen table raised an eyebrow at her gaping mouth and stood up politely.

“Well, Miss Williams, you have been busy.” His voice was smooth and lilting, but with an undertone of steel.

It took Cally a few moments to figure out what to say.

“How did you get in here?” With one hand, she groped in her pocket for her mobile.

“I wouldn’t do that, Miss Williams. Don’t force my hand by attempting to summon the police. You see, I would dearly like to have a civilised conversation with you.”

Cally took a deep breath and debated her options. Her mother’s voice was yelling at her to call the police. But something about this man made her pause. On balance, he was probably not a great physical threat. His suit was obviously expensive, well tailored and immaculate, and nearly hid the slight spare tyre around his middle. He was obviously not used to exercise and she had taken up kickboxing since moving to London. And it was highly unlikely that the carefully furled umbrella concealed a gun.

She moved her hand away from her pocket and repeated her question.

“How did you get in here?”

“You should install some better locks Miss Williams, especially in this part of London. Be that as it may, that is not what I came to discuss.”

“It isn’t?”

“Indeed not. The important question is, “he paused for dramatic effect, “are you bored?”

This was not what Cally was expecting. She just stared at him.

“Miss Williams, you spent a significant amount of time last night hacking into my secure system.”

Mentally Cally flinched. Now she realised who this man was.

“However, even if you made impressively short work of some very advanced encryption protocols, you did not seem to be looking for anything in particular, and you did not leave any nasty little surprises behind. In comparison to the rest of your work, your attempt to cover your tracks was far from effective. I would ask if you did it to gain my attention. But you were genuinely alarmed by my presence in your flat and it was not until I identified the servers as mine that you realised who I was. Couple that with your job as a PA to a very junior executive in a mediocre firm and conspicuous lack of social life, and the obvious conclusion is that last night’s little fishing expedition came from sheer boredom.”

All this was fired at her at speed.

“Now, the information you garnered from my colleagues’ servers, you did sell. A quick look at your financial status tells me that while your earnings are mediocre, you are not in debt and are careful to remain so. This leads me to believe the money is for something else. I would say it is for your sister’s care, were she not in an NHS facility that is adequate for her needs.”

Her little gasp at this point made Mycroft nod.

“The sister. I might have known it was sentiment.”

“Leave Clio out of this. She’s been through enough this year.” This was said in a cold, flat voice that rivalled the best tones Mycroft had exercised on her so far.

“Indeed she has, and I mean her no harm. I assume you wish to move her to a private facility.”

He waited expectantly until Cally gave a reluctant nod. “Well, that can be arranged. In return for something from you, of course.” Piercing blue eyes fixed themselves on Cally, their focus increasing as she held his gaze. Seeing her eyes widen and fill with derision and disgust, he shook his head and smiled slightly.

“No, no, nothing like that, I assure you. I require a PA. From your foray into my files last night I assume you have some idea of my work.” Another reluctant nod. “Well then, you can see that I require someone of unusual talents to assist me. It is surprisingly difficult to find good help. I can assure you, you are unlikely to be bored any length of time in my employ. The position requires absolute confidentiality and 24/7 availability. In return, as well as your sister’s care in a first class institution, you would receive a generous salary and the use of an apartment in a much nicer area of London.”

Cally needed a moment to process all this. She sat on her other kitchen chair. It sounded too good to be true, it probably was. What was the catch?

“No catch.” She must have said the last aloud. “It’s very simple. I am offering you a well-paid, interesting job and first class care for your sister for the duration of your employment. If you decide you do not wish to take this position, your details will be passed to the security services, thus ensuring your foray into hacking will be paid for at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Or displeasure in this case.” This was all said in a patient, flat voice, which never the less raised hairs on the back of her neck.

“If I agree, Clio’s care is assured for at least a year, no matter what.” She could sense that just agreeing to everything would not set a good precedent. It only occurred to her after she had spoken, that she had tacitly agreed to take the job.

“You are hardly in a position to negotiate, Miss Williams.”

“But you’re going to agree anyway, you don’t seem cruel, and it would be cruel to make her suffer.”

“Very well. Agreed. I shall have a contract drawn up and a car will be waiting outside at 8am Monday. Your first task will be a complete review of my technical security.”

While speaking, Mycroft stood and held out his hand. Cally followed suit.

“Welcome to the British Government, Miss Williams.”

“Thank you, Mr Holmes.”

He made his way to the door, pausing just before he left. Without turning around, he said, “One last thing, you will require an alias for your new job.” And with that, he shut the door.

~~~

Her heels clacked evenly across the polished parquetry, changing to a muted thud as she reached the rug underneath the desk.

“Good morning, Mr Holmes. I am your new PA, Anthea Taylor.”