I watched the five people stumbling up my path with bags and boxes, but I didn’t go to help them at first. In fact, I didn’t move from the doorway of my trailer at all. I just leaned against the open aluminum door, cultivating the nonchalant look. The nonchalant “I never asked you here in the first place” look.
Didn’t work, of course.
It was so early in the morning that the sun had that pale white shine. The air was sharp and a little damp. There was no one else around except a wheeling bird high above us.
I couldn’t mistake the twist of misery on Simon Wagner’s face. He was genuinely distressed. His soft blond hair looked like he’d run his hands through it a million times this morning, and there were dark shadows sketched in under his baby-blue eyes. His whole expression said, “I’m confused. I’m pissed. I’m out of my depth here.” It hit me as strongly as if I felt it myself. I had, of course, in other circumstances. He was a guy who’d always found a way under my defenses, and—just for that moment—my hostility wavered.
Judith Harrington was beside him. Her expression was less easy to read. Nothing new there, then. Even when I’d worked for her, I’d never dared assume I knew what she was really thinking. When she darted one of her glares at me, I stirred myself down the couple of rickety steps and sauntered along the path to take my share of the baggage. I lifted a couple of boxes off of Simon and his assistant, and I helped Judith balance her briefcase on the top of some packaged books. Then I also took two clothes bags off her assistant, Cissy, slinging them over my shoulder. But I refused to help the fifth visitor. I reckoned he was tough enough to take the whole damned lot himself.
We all tottered through the narrow doorway into the trailer, one by one, and piled the stuff in the corner of what I laughingly called my living room. I had to wedge everything between my shaky, tubular steel couch and the standard lamp that only worked, as far as I could tell, at its own whim. That was the only free space available. Our huffing and heaving brought down a couple of the pictures I’d tacked up on the wall behind the couch, but I didn’t make a fuss about it. They were only cut out of magazines, after all.
Instead, I stared at the baggage invasion. Boxes of books and papers and maps, a couple of kit bags of presumably more personal things, a modest pile of clothing protected by thin plastic covers. A cardboard lid flapped shut suddenly, expelling a small puff of dust. A small enough collection of belongings, I guessed, for a single person. The sum total of a life, of twenty-three years. I could tell it had all been packed pretty hurriedly. Some of the boxes were charred slightly at the corners, and there was water damage on the book covers.
Looked pretty pathetic. I swallowed down a comment to that effect.
No one was talking, apart from breathing more heavily from the slight effort. Judith sank on to the couch with a tsking sound, which was probably her only concession to admitting pain. She had a weak ankle, and this removal business wouldn’t have helped it. She fell once on a mission, when she’d hurtled down two full floors from an outside fire escape. But as I heard it, she struggled on to the end, supporting a wounded teammate out of the building with her and only then admitting she’d fractured a bone in her ankle. Tough cookie.
She made some small gesture with her hand to Cissy and Greg—Simon’s assistant—and they backed off outside again to stand near the foot of the steps. They pulled the door closed behind them, but not completely. I breathed a little more steadily; it had been getting a tad crowded indoors. Just the four of us left, now. Someone cleared a dry throat.
Simon spoke first. He never could stand awkward silences. “It’s not for long, Tanner, or so we hope. But there’s nowhere else we could find, and no one else we dared ask. You know that, don’t you?”
I caught Judith’s look out of the corner of my eye and shrugged. “Things must be really bad. I’m not exactly Employee of the Month, am I?”
Simon scowled. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. He’s in danger. We all are. However, the Department insists we involve as few people as possible outside of the core team. You’re one of the very few that has adequate clearance.” His voice was thick with repressed emotion. “One of the few that we can trust, dammit!”
I bit at my lip. “Tea, anyone? Beer?” Then I remembered there was no beer. I gave it up a while back. I found all sorts of maudlin feelings crept in when I allowed it around me. No one answered my question, at first, but neither did it stir them into any other action. The mutual glances being thrown around excluded me by their very existence. It reminded me of when I’d last been part of that clique. When I’d been a damned critical part.
And how I no longer was.
Simon sighed. “There’s a hell of a lot to be done before any of us can rest again. Oh, and tea…? Yes please, for me and Judith. I’ll give you a hand with it. Then we can talk everything through together. That okay with you, Tanner?”
“Yeah,” I answered slowly, making sure my gaze stayed on him. “Sure it’s okay.”
Simon made his way out to the kitchen area ahead of me, lifting aside the bead curtain with barely a glance. I kind of liked it, though purple and black wouldn’t have been my first color choice if I’d decorated the place myself. I pushed after him, needing to get in there before he discovered just how few creature comforts I actually had. I reckoned I could remember where there were a few more tea bags left in a cracked pot; perhaps a couple of washed mugs apart from the large blue one I used daily. It’s not like I’d wanted to entertain, right? Didn’t say that to the blond guy with the tortured eyes, though.
“You haven’t called Brad or me for a while,” he said. His voice was low, and it didn’t sound like he put his whole heart into the rebuke. Even so, I felt like a major asshole.
“Not a lot of news to share.”
He raised a cynical eyebrow. “Just so we know you’re okay. We don’t need a full news report for that.”
I nodded and shrugged. “Okay. Of course I’m okay. But that’s fair enough.” I flipped on the kettle, knowing we had a couple of minutes before Judith got impatient for us to return, and the noise of the bubbling water would hide our voices. “So let’s have the truth here, Simon. I’ve been out of it for almost three months now. What the hell is this all about? Far as I know, there’s been nothing much going on in the Department since Mission Dove wrapped up.”
“Far as you know?” His eyebrow rose again.
“Right.” I sighed. “So I’m not on the circulation list nowadays. But I can find out what’s going on if I want to, you know?”
“Yes, I imagine you can.” His eyes sparkled briefly with amusement. “You always did find access to all kinds of places. But you’re right. The Project Team hasn’t been called up for any more work on that scale. All we’ve been working on are minor investigations, some local security issues. Housekeeping tasks for the Department, you might say.”
“So….” The kettle shrieked and rattled to a boiling halt. The condensation dripped with familiar glee down my wall cupboard. “So what’s this sudden crisis?”
It was obvious that it took him an effort to appear calm. “I guess it’s important to get you up to speed. We’ve all been unwinding after Dove, and maybe we’ve been too complacent. But most of us were just looking forward to taking a break. We were all exhausted, still pretty tensed up from it. As you know.” He glanced at me, and I knew what he was referring to.
Not now, Simon. Leave it.
Mission Dove had been the last major exercise I’d been involved in, before I… left the Project Team. It had been the most important to date, not that the Team could take any specific credit, working as it did behind the scenes. “Anonymous” was our group’s directive. We were agents of a confidential cell within the Department, kept under the radar of its governmental bosses. But we all knew that one of the most significant peace talks of the last forty years had been concluded without incident, and that our small but highly specialized team had been a contributor to that success. None of us had specific job titles; flexibility was the name of our game. But our brief had included sweeping the conference sites for trouble before and after the events, monitoring communication systems that’d shame the flight deck of a jet, and tracking any potential hostility, whether from or toward the participants. We’d added our covert protection to the delegates in just as significant a way as the official security forces. It had been a damned fine time, the best work we’d ever done. Though I say so myself.
But like Simon said, we’d all suffered from the tension and weariness it brought. And some of us had let it take hold. I knew that better than all of them here today.
“Tanner?” He was staring at me. “Work with me on this, will you? You were with us on that mission. You’ve been with us all the way since the beginning of the Team. Look, I don’t know exactly what happened when you left. But it’s important to talk about that time and fully trust each other.”
“Sure.” My gaze met his, steady as before, and he turned back to the matter at hand.
“Well, like I said, things were calm. Then just a month ago, the attacks started. We were alerted of random sabotage at locations where the Team had been working during Dove, although obviously we’d tried to keep the whole mission under the strictest cover.”
“Any idea why?”
He shook his head. “None at all. No warnings, no formal threat, no obvious connection with any other current political or military event. The strikes have all been amateurish, but dangerous nonetheless.”
“A couple of small explosive devices. A sabotaged vehicle. There’s been damage to telecommunications and computer networks.”
“Weird. Someone with a grievance against the talks?”
He shrugged. “There have been no further political demands since it all ended, no overt protests. But yes, at first we assumed it was part of a fresh reprisal against the event and the official mission.”
I frowned. “But why did they choose those locations?” Simon had said they were where the Project Team had been working. I’d always been impressed at the way our cell was kept in the shadows of the Department. Some people used to say that even the HR section didn’t know we existed, and Judith handled all our remuneration issues herself. One of those urban myths, I reckoned. “How could anyone know for certain where we’d been?”
Simon put his hand on a mug as if he were concentrating on making the tea. Both of us knew he wasn’t. He was suddenly very still.
“You mean there was a leak from the Department?” No further response. “Dammit, Simon, from the Project Team itself?” A traitor sounded way too melodramatic, but wasn’t that what he was implying? After all, who else would have had access to all the information?
“No! I mean… we don’t know that for certain.” He rolled a teaspoon back and forth between his fingers. I reckoned he’d spooned six heaps of sugar into his mug already, and I hadn’t even poured the tea yet. “No one knows enough about it yet to make any assessment. Brad….” His voice faltered, but he went on, the words tumbling out more quickly. “Brad was—is—following the trail right now. He’s been monitoring every communication in or out of the Team since Mission Dove was concluded. He’s been checking recent logs and reissuing access protocols. If there’s ever been any breach of security, he’ll find it. But it takes time.” Tendrils of panic flickered in his eyes; anger too. “There must be another explanation, Tanner. We’re such a small team. We all know each other so well.”
Or not, as the case may be. I felt a nasty little chill raising the hairs at the base of my neck. “And so you’re here to check me out? Thinking it might be me?”
“Dammit, no!” He looked genuinely affronted. “Why the hell would you think that?”
I shrugged, hiding my relief. “I guess it’s common knowledge I have issues with the Team. I didn’t exactly get a gold watch when I left.”
“You didn’t give anyone enough time, one way or another.” His tone was terse.
“Whatever. But I know about you all, about the missions.” I wasn’t sure why I was pursuing this. “I know enough about sabotage…”
“In theory, maybe.” Simon was trying not to smile, although his eyes were still worried. “Remember that time you nearly blew your fingers off, helping Joe’s training class?”
“Amateurish, you said. The attempts.” I sounded stubborn.
“To hell with it, Tanner! We’re not here to place blame. We’re here to work out what to do! No one thinks it’s you. I said we came here because we can trust you, didn’t I?”
“Okay, okay.” I’d rarely heard him so upset. “And… thanks.”
He frowned and shook his head, but his expression softened.
“So tell me more. You said ‘at first’ you thought it was to do with Dove. There’s been more since then, hasn’t there?”
“Yes, there has.” Simon tensed up. “Over the last couple of weeks the attacks have… changed direction. There’s no mistaking the focus. They’re targeting the Project operatives themselves.”
“The Team members?”
“And their support staff, yes. Some of our suppliers, too, and our contacts in other governmental departments. More random attacks on property, computer viruses… some aggressive but untraceable telephone threats. All personal, all very specific.”
“Those people and places are only in our files. No one else knows where we work, how we work.”
Simon glared at me, his expression fierce. Like I was the one giving him this grief. “For God’s sake, Tanner, don’t you think we know that? But there’s been barely any time to investigate how this attacker gained such information. We’re too busy trying to protect ourselves!”
I held out a hand to calm him. “But that amateurish approach….”
He shook his head again. “The effect is no less devastating. And to be honest, that makes it more difficult to cope with. There’s no reason to the attacks—no coherent plan we can anticipate.”
“We always knew the job had risks.”
“But in the course of the mission!” His expression was half anger, half distress. “This is against us personally. Something very different. And we can’t assume they won’t get more effective. It’s all just… shocking.”
Catching us unawares. The chill this time felt ugly too. “And Brad?”
Simon paled. I’d obviously struck a nerve. “He’s okay… I think. I mean, he’s not been attacked personally so far. But he’s been working twenty-four seven on the communication trail to and from the Department, and he’s out in the field now.”
Huh? Simon wasn’t telling me everything. It was rare for Brad Richards, our communications expert and resident geek, to work out of the Department at all. “So where is he now?”
“I don’t know.” The note of desolation in Simon’s voice was horrible. “I need to get back and try to track him down. He hasn’t called in for over eight hours. He left just before the attack last night on the Westbridge building.” He glanced at me. “Judith told you what happened? Why we’re here?”
“She told me the basics on the phone,” I said. “Niall’s apartment building blew up.”
Simon flinched, and suddenly I felt the wave of emotion from him as clearly as I might see a sudden jag in a sound wave pattern. “That’s an exaggeration, Tanner. The whole building didn’t blow up. But it’s the most significant offensive so far.” His eyes narrowed with anger. “Both Niall and Joe were hurt. It would have been even worse, but luckily they were on their way out. It also seemed that some of the explosives didn’t go off. Even so, Niall’s apartment was all but destroyed.”
And if he’d been in it….
Simon’s spoon clattered noisily back on to the counter. “So now we’re all on the danger list, Brad the same as I am. Joe’s in the hospital under armed guard, with severe injuries to his leg. They’ll only let Judith in there at the moment. And Niall’s here….”
“Why?” I didn’t know how else to say it, except bluntly. “Why us?”
“I don’t know,” Simon said. “But we’ll find out.”
I was shaken, despite my pathetic attempt at not caring. “And so why contact me? I’ve not been a part of it since Dove. I doubt I need protection or anything. There’s been no threat against me.”
“Whatever Judith may have said on the phone to persuade you to do this, she meant it, Tanner. About us needing you. You’re the only one in such a unique position. No media exposure, very little public record, and the skill and training to vanish if you want to. Hell, you’ve proved it already. It took me four days and all the resources of the Department—unofficially—to track you here.” He saw my startled expression, deteriorating swiftly toward anger. “Take that look off your face, Tanner, I had my orders. When the attacks first started, Judith wanted every Team member located, including you. Just in case.”
It wasn’t worth getting upset about, and I guess I was kind of disappointed it hadn’t taken longer.
“I respect your need to get away, Tanner, but we need you now. You’re the only one who can understand what’s at stake, what’s required. We just don’t have anywhere that we’re sure is totally secure any more. This place—your place—has never been anywhere near the Department’s records. It just doesn’t exist as far as they’re concerned. You’re the only one at the moment with a genuinely safe house.”
“Trailer,” I said, being pedantic.
He looked confused, then smiled. “Sure.” His eyes ranged over the lemon-painted walls; the slightly bulging window frames. He tensed up. I don’t think he’d registered much of my unusual décor before now. “Trailer. It’s good, I’m sure.” He sighed. “Tanner, look. I know you and Niall have… issues.”
I carefully bit back the growl in my throat.
“You won’t talk about it, either of you. That’s your prerogative, I guess. But I have to force this on you, regardless. Even Judith has been targeted in the last week or so—”
“What the fuck?” I ignored Simon’s wince. “How serious?”
He waved his hand, dismissing it. “It’s okay. Just a suspicious package delivered to the Department. It never got past the front desk, let alone to hers. But it was clearly addressed to her.”
“She won’t tell you about it, I suspect, and she’s unharmed, you can see that yourself. But we’re suddenly all in danger, with no idea as to why, whether it’s an organized campaign or random acts of revenge of some kind. We have to consolidate what we know and support each other. Find and isolate the threat. Then deal with it.”
There was a moment of silence. I poured water from the kettle onto the tea bags with exaggerated care. “The Department is involved to the highest level, right?”
Simon was still pale. “This situation has been escalated, of course it has. But there can’t be any official recognition. The Project Team was set up as a separate and secret division and that’s the way we have to stay. We have to clean up our own mess, without knowing what it really is. And we need you with us, don’t you understand? If this is a chance to bring you back on board….” He looked very earnest, very concerned, and I bit back an overwhelming desire to offer him whatever he needed. Simon had that effect on people; I knew why Judith relied on him so much.
“It’s not going to happen,” I said. I cleared my throat, just for extra emphasis.
“Why are you hiding out here, Tanner? You should have stayed. It could all have been sorted out, I’m sure. I never wanted you off the Team, you know that, don’t you?”
“Sure. It’s a given.” I didn’t meet his eyes. It hadn’t been Simon’s choice, whatever the circumstances. I knew exactly who to blame for my exile, self-imposed or not. “Take Judith’s tea in for her, will you?”
He picked up the two mugs, looking at the random spring flowers on one and a leering kitten—mercifully faded—on the other. I could see his mental count. “What about Niall?”
“Didn’t ask for anything.”
“You’ll want to talk to him about all this, of course—”
“I won’t,” I said.
His eyes blinked, rather too quickly. “It’s not much to ask, Tanner. You’ve always been a tolerant person.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse. “That’s where your Team speech fails, Simon. Because just now and then, I’m fucking not. I’m doing this for reasons that stick in my throat, although I’ll stand by my word. But I don’t have to be tolerant at all. And don’t you forget it.” I ignored the splash of brown liquid on the counter and the burning mug handle against my thumb. I pushed through the bead curtain and emerged back into the bubble of tension that was hovering in my meager living room.
Which was now uncomfortably full of people I’d thought I’d left behind.
It was like one of those Mexican stand-offs. I stood, leaning against the wall nearest the kitchen, paying about as much attention to my tea as I would to weather reports on the moon. Simon sat awkwardly beside Judith on the couch, which was never the most comfortable of seats at the best of times. The fourth inhabitant of the trailer stood beside them.
Niall. Niall Sutherland, alongside the boxes he’d delivered to my home in a strange, bitter little plea for protection. His hands hung at his sides, and he didn’t meet my gaze. He looked like he was frowning, but I was pretty sure that was just the way his face had settled. His mind would be busy on other things.
Simon stared at the two of us with something ominously close to despair. “We weren’t followed here. We’re pretty sure no one knows about this place except for us. But you must inform us at once of any strangers on the site.”
I snorted. I wasn’t working at the moment, so I saw most people as they came and went, but barely twenty percent of the population stayed on the park more than three days in a row. That was the nature of this place, didn’t he know?
He continued, regardless. “Niall will need communication with us. I’ll leave you with a cell phone for that exclusive use. It’s linked to the emergency numbers for the Team we all know—and only we know.”
“The numbers we never expected to use?” It had been a bit of a joke during initial training. We’d thought it was way too James Bond.
Simon ignored my sarcasm. “Niall mustn’t have any other external interaction. He mustn’t be seen, mustn’t leave here until we give clearance.”
“You want me to sit through the briefings on security again?” I thought my voice was steady enough, but Simon frowned.
“No, of course not. Don’t be so damned sensitive. I know you know your job. I just wanted to stress some specific things.” He wriggled on the couch and glanced over at the unnaturally still man standing beside him.
So did I. Tall, a little slimmer than I remembered, dark hair looking pretty unkempt. The shadow of a cut under his chin. My gut shuddered a little. I didn’t think it was because I’d missed a couple of meals this week.
Simon glanced back and caught sight of my scowl. “Cut me some slack here, Tanner. We’re all very disturbed by this. Like I said, we need to support each other.” His voice was just the right side of pleading, just the right side of appealing to my better nature. He negotiated well, but of course he’d met his match in me. My better nature was snoozing in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, hibernating for the season and dreaming of Florida beaches. I think Simon could see that in my eyes. “Perhaps none of us are thinking as clearly as we should. You’ll need to discuss your own arrangements with Niall, work out your own timetable. And you’ll need twenty-four seven contact between the pair of you, of course, to monitor this.”
That’s when Niall’s head jerked up, when his eyes met mine at last. His frown was reflected in the depths of his eyes.
My mouth went dry. “Twenty-four seven contact,” I echoed. “I rather think that’s the last thing I need. And though I’m the one you might expect to be kind of prickly, I’m guessing your colleague feels much the same way.”
Simon stood, rather abruptly. He looked from me to Niall, and then back at me. His shoulders tensed. Guess he recognized the daggers drawn in two sets of dark pupils. I think I saw Judith’s hand stretch out slightly, as if to hold him back. I did notice that he hadn’t drunk a whole lot of his tea.
His next words were bitter. “Okay, so maybe I wanted this to work just a little too much. But look at the pair of you! What the hell made me think that it would?”
I turned my head away, losing eye contact with all of them, trying to tune him out. He made me feel ashamed, I’d admit it. A brat. But I was in no mood today for Simon Wagner, the Project Team’s man who “got things done.” Couldn’t he see that?
But he didn’t let up. “Dear God, you’re glaring like gladiators at each other. As if there’s a danger you’ll kill each other before any enemy has the time to track you down!”
And then Judith Harrington herself pitched in. The slender, elegantly attractive, dark blonde woman who currently sat on my couch and sipped at a stale tea, more bitter than my shriveled emotions. A woman with a black belt in martial arts, which no one would ever guess from her quiet, controlled attitude, unless perhaps they were on the receiving end. The keenest brain that had ever thrashed me at chess, and the woman I’d listened to—been directed by—for a long and very interesting time. The woman I’d been surprised to see here today, in person. Guess that’s what made me realize this whole damned farce was real.
Her voice was sharp, and the reproof was aimed at me. “Tanner MacKay, I don’t want to have to pull rank, but I will if I have to. This is for the good of the Team, not individuals, do you hear me? I’ve worked damned hard to get what support I can, and I won’t let something like this close us down. This directive has been unofficially sanctioned by certain sympathetic channels in the Department, and if you want any chance of ever working in the field again—in any capacity—you’ll do your very best to cooperate and keep Niall Sutherland safe. Do you understand?”
There was a sudden, awkward pause. You could’ve heard the last drop of condensation drip down in the kitchen on to the linoleum.
“Okay,” I said, slowly. “No problem. I understand all too well. I’m not aware that you—of all people—ever had any problems with plain speaking.” We both knew the insouciance was a ploy of mine, to play for time, to retain my dignity. I was actually quite shaken by her vehemence. Judith’s management of us had always been calm and reasonably voiced. “But you are asking me to put my home on the line, right? To come out of my quiet, anonymous little world—to offer it back to your organization, with all the risk that currently seems to attract.”
“You’re still officially an employee of the Project Team,” she snapped.
“And still on suspension, right?” I fired back. “Still on much-reduced pay and benefits, right?”
Her eyes grew darker and she flushed. “It was your choice, MacKay. We could’ve discussed the financial implications. But as far as I remember, you told me to shove the benefits up my ass and twist them hard. Next I knew, your address was ‘gone away’. And yes, you’re still on suspension, though that’s open to final review in a couple of weeks’ time.” She caught my angry gaze and held it fearlessly for a moment. Then gradually, her expression softened. “If you’d given me a chance, Tanner, I would have told you to stay and see it out. You just weren’t listening to me at the time.”
I didn’t want her pity. I had my own, right? But Judith had always been a damned good friend to me.
“Tanner, I know it was tough for you back then, but this is what we have to do, now. And we need you to help. We can look at this as a partial return to active duty, if that’s what you want, and we’ll review the salary issue. If you can work with us here….”
“You’re not the one I’m sharing my personal space with, here,” I grunted.
Simon laid a hand on my arm. It was a shock, being touched like that. He’d always enjoyed the friendship in the Team, the banter. The comradeship. Maybe I’d missed that, the past few months. But I didn’t think I was in any mood to debate it either way.
“Tanner, it’s obvious this is difficult for you. But like Judith says, we need your help! We can’t trust any other Departmental locations at the moment. Joe’s in hospital and Brad is isolated, out in the field with no support. Judith has junior staff with very justifiable fear of stepping outside their front doors and the Department watching our every move from the safety of their plush governmental offices, wondering and waiting to see if this brings us down. We must stop this, and fast. All the good work we’ve done in the Project Team so far—we must protect that, as well as ourselves.” I could hear the urgency in his voice. “Niall has nothing left and nowhere to go! He needs you, Tanner.”
He’s going to love that summary of his situation, of his life. The pressure from Simon’s warm hand was very unnerving. Once upon a long time ago, I’d been as committed to the job as he had. You hear that, Niall? Apparently you have nothing left! Except this….
And so I turned back to face my new houseguest. Niall Sutherland. Man with the boxes, man with the need for my home.
Niall. The man I’d crossed state to avoid; whose proximity promised nothing now except contempt; the man I once said I didn’t want to see again until hell proverbially froze over, let alone offer a mug of tea.
And he was staying in my home.