"Yasmin Soufri?" Rachel looked up from the newspaper she wasnít reading. The Paris airport concourse was crowded with passengers going to and from the early evening international flights.
She regarded the stranger for a quick moment before replying. He was obviously human, which reassured her greatly. "Yasmin? No, Iím sorry, thatís not me." she replied in French. Rachel leaned past him and pointed to a tired mother of two children at a nearby table. "Maybe thatís her."
The stranger gazed at the other table and shook his head. "No, thatís not her." He replied in lightly accented French. "Sorry to have bothered you." And with that, he walked away. Rachel waited for a few minutes, until she heard the last call for a flight departing for Heathrow, and briskly moved towards the flight gate.
Once aboard the commuter plane, Rachel reached for the object the stranger had placed in her pocket. Despite her recent tribulations, she had to suppress a smile at the cloak and dagger games that the intelligence agencies never tired of. It was a key for a locker in Victoria Station. That caused her incipient smile to fade. She knew first hand how easy it was to watch that location. The left-luggage lockers were a favorite check in point for field agents from six different bureaus, and countless other freelance individuals.
She stifled a sigh and hoped that Simon hadnít sent her out on another doomed escapade. If it hadnít been for the size of the favor she owed the MI6 section chief, she wouldnít have been there. Courier work was not her usual thing, and the timing was awful, but a favor was a favor. Explaining that to Cassius had been easier than she expected, but she still debated the wisdom of leaving him alone so soon after his return, even for just a few days. Too late now, Rachel. She cleared her head of those doubts and focused on what was ahead of her.
The plane landed in Heathrow twenty minutes later. Rachel quickly left the airport and decided to use the Underground to reach Victoria. Rachel switched trains several times, mentally thanking the city for having so many different train lines in one metropolitan area, and changed her face every time she was able to bear the stench and grime inside the stationsí bathrooms.
When she reached Victoria Station, Rachel was two inches taller, apparently thirty pounds heavier, blond and middle aged. She hoped that all these changes were worth the effort. She couldnít detect anyone following her during her lengthy train voyages, but she had to assume the worst. She joined the tail end of an extended family group crossing the main atrium and soon came to her destination.
Inside the medium sized locker was a royal blue sports bag, with a popular sports logo emblazoned across the side. It completely failed to match the rumpled business garb Rachel had donned, and she made a mental note to change her appearance again as soon as possible. Heaving the bag onto her shoulder - it was deceptively heavy - Rachel tossed the key inside the locker, slammed it shut and headed for the closest exit.
Traveling by foot wasnít the normal way for a high-level courier to carry documents worth an unspecified amount, but Londonís traffic was at itís usual worst and Rachel didnít want to go on the Tube again just yet. So it was up to her and her sneakers. A quick "dinner" at a nearby McDonaldís had given her the chance to change her appearance once more, and now her bag was being carried by a fit Indian woman who was apparently walking home from the gym.
As she strode through the streets, Rachel considered the quickest route to her next point, a small town forty miles away, Crawley. She didnít fancy her ability to drive on the Ďwrongí side of the street, but the train schedule from Kingís Cross didnít suit her, either.
Somebody was keeping stride behind her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a Jamaican youth in mainstream rock getup and badly bleached hair walking immediately behind her. From her other side came a voice.
Rachel tried to hide her shock as she took in the speaker with a glance: white, male, fit and human. Time to worry, but not panic, she decided.. "You have the wrong person." She said, careful not to duplicate the code phrase. She increased her pace to pull away from her companion and lurched when he caught her arm.
He was smiling slightly, the strain showing. "Nice and easy now, to that van over there." He nodded towards a traveling repairmanís van double parked a few yards away. "Or else I can call in the bluebottles and have them swarming all over the place. Either way is fine by me."
Rachel quickly assessed her chances and they werenít good. The street was moderately crowded with too many innocent people. Rachel doubted she could get away without any of the being hurt, or violating the Masquerade. Better to let these fools take her away and escape from there. Her assailant had already told her that causing a scene and counting on rescue from the police was a futile hope. She knew she had to be at her destination by dawn or else the world might end - to hear Simon tell it.
She let herself be led into the dark vehicle and, as she expected, a blunt instrument across the back of her head relieved her of consciousness. Her last thought, was bitter anger at whoever had found her.
Simon Farrar was working late, as usual. He looked across his desk, covered in work clutter but nothing else and once again thanked providence that he had never married. His hours, and the necessary secrecy, would have doomed any long term relationship, and it had played a part in dooming most of the shorter ones, too.
He sighed and reached for his cooling tea. Even at the best of times he didnít exactly enjoy his job, and this was not one of those times. He was counting on Rachel being able to look after herself, but that didnít help him with the question -
The reverie was interrupted by a crash of motion and noise. His already work-scarred door slammed open and before it bounced back into the intruder, she was inside. A blue sports back was thrown into him at what felt like the same speed as a fastball, forcing his breath out painfully. Rachel stood across from him, seething.
Simon glanced down at the sports bag and up at the furious woman and wondered how the hell he was going to explain this to her. She wasnít even due in Crawley for another hour!
She seemed to be waiting for him to speak. "Yas-"
"You bastard!" she shouted over him.
Simon raised a hand, simultaneously wondering as the likelihood of it being any real protection. "Now li-"
"You fucking swine!" Rachel shouted him down again.
Simon drew breath angrily and realized that no matter what he said, she was going to be louder. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged, waiting for her to take the lead.
Rachel stood in front of the desk and leaned towards him, speaking in a quietly furious voice. "You bloody idiot. What kind of games are you playing at? That," she shoved at the bag on his lap. "was a setup."
"Shut up." She hissed. "Iím very, very pissed off right now, and Iím in no mood for interruptions. The building is empty. If you just keep quiet and let me chew you out, you might actually live through this." She glanced at his hands, clutching the sports bag. "And donít be reaching for that button, either. That was the first thing I disabled." And Iíll be owing somebody big-time for that favor, she didnít add.
"I donít like setups, I donít like being a stalking horse and I sure as hell donít like being held captive by grubby fingered thugs." She told him bluntly. "I really hope that the genuine bag made it out of town alright, because itís going to cost you enough."
She gracelessly fell into a nearby chair and waited for his justifications. It wasnít a long wait.
"Yasmin." He began and then stopped, waiting to be cut off. He wasnít and he continued. "Of course I couldnít tell you what was really going on, for the obvious reason. I knew you could look after yourself-"
"You hoped." Rachel corrected him. "And I even wonder about that." She added darkly.
"What?" Simon frowned and realized her implication. "Oh, for Godís sake, I wasnít setting you up to get killed. Why would I want to do that?"
"I can think of two or three good reasons. And those goons were ready enough to off me when they realized they had the wrong bag." Simonís surprise at this was obvious. "That wasnít in the plan, I take it?" she asked acidly.
"There wasnít any plan. Any plan to kill you, that is." Simon added as Rachel prepared to deliver a withering response. Simon felt his own temper rising and took a deep breath. "And Iím surprised because thatís not the way that particular group operates, usually."
"And, tell me, who were these thugs who were so out of character?" Rachel demanded.
Simon looked uncomfortable. "I canít tell you, Iím sorry."
Rachel considered pushing the issue, but decided to let it go. "Fine." She snapped. "That still doesnít alter the fact that I almost got killed for some game of silly buggers." Simon was unaware of her true nature. "I thought you said this courier job was vital?"
"It was." Simonís temper finally snapped. "And I told you what you needed to know."
Rachel frowned, her features becoming sullen. ĎNeed to knowí was a fact of life, and he was right, she didnít need to know that her work was a setup.
"This is the absolutely worst time for me to be playing hostage for anyone." Rachel muttered. Simon frowned at her, hoping sheíd elaborate, but no explanation came. "But I suppose that doesnít matter. What does matter is that those idiots were able to walk right up to me."
"So you were followed. It happens sometimes." Simon said bluntly.
"Not to me it doesnít." Rachel replied darkly, thinking of her special abilities. "You can take this any way you like, but I think you were set up, too. They knew where I was right away, and when Iím working, Iím invisible. I think that bag has a tracker on it. Thatís why they couldnít grab me until after Victoria. And," she added darkly, "they knew my name. The same one you know me by."
Simon thought about it. Despite her moments of arrogance, Yasmin was right, she was invisible. He had tried to have her tailed on her last trip to Tel Aviv and she had lost her pursuers before they left Gatwick. "Shit." He muttered.
Rachel saw his realization. "Precisely. That would mean that one of your men compromised the operation."
"It could have been you." Simon observed.
Rachel nodded. "Oh yeh, and now Iíve come to turn myself in." she said sarcastically, but privately admiring Simonís paranoia. "But it gets worse. I think your own people are out to get you in a big way."
"What?" Simon couldnít guess at what she meant.
"Okay, I got taken down by Station Road, you know that neighborhood, right?" Simon nodded. "Itís one of the busiest streets in the city, especially in the early evening, commuters heading to and from Victoria, right? So whatís the usual self defense tactic when cornered on a busy street?"
"Scream like hell." Simon muttered, a sinking fear began to grow inside of him.
"Yeh, it usually is. But just as Iím about to fall back on that, Iím told that I can scream all I like, the police would be very helpful - for them."
Simonís mind raced. "They could have been bluffing. They probably were." He asserted.
Rachel admitted that with a shrug. "They may have been, but they were confident enough to risk me calling it."
"Shit." Simon repeated. He looked across his messy desk, worse now for the passage of the bag filled with useless documents, hoping for inspiration.
"Time for spring cleaning, Simon." She told him wearily. Agency cleanings always caused a lot more mess before they were done. He didnít reply to that. A long silence ensued.
"But I donít know whoís got the broom." Simon said finally. Another silence stretched out. "Youíre alright?" he asked belatedly.
"Of course I am. People are stupid, and even the best thug sometimes fails to lay down a sap properly." There was no need for her to tell Simon that she only had to fake unconsciousness until the right opportunity presented itself. "So you know who they were?"
"As sure as I can be, yes." Was the careful reply.
"Was I bait for a botched sting or successful diversion?" she asked, anger creeping back into her voice.
"The latter." Simon said quickly. "Iím sorry about the unpleasantness. We honestly thought they would follow you to Crawley and act from there. Weíll take care of it."
"Good. Take care of them and the leak. Iím willing to help with that."
Simon considered refusing her offer. It was clear to him that she was letting some personal anger affect her. But then again, she was the only one who had seen her assailants. Given the possibility of an internal leak, that could be a vital piece of information.
"Alright, stick around." Simon told her. "If nothing else, we might need you to identify them in a line up. In fact, we better set you up with the mug books right now."
Rachel nodded. It was tedious, but it was the logical place to start. "Fine. I can only stay for a couple of days, though. Iíve got a lot of business going on in the States and I canít leave it for too long."
Simon nodded. "Anything I should know about?"
"Not a damn thing." Rachel replied brusquely.
Simon didnít take offense. It was the answer he had expected. "Thatís fine, if we need you back, I can reach you the usual way, right?"
"Always, old man." Rachel smiled. Simon Farrar had to run a moderately severe gauntlet to get a message to Rachel in California.
"Good, then letís get to it. First person we need isÖ"
Rachelís hand was shaking so hard with anger that she was barely able to feed her coins into the slot of the pay phone before her. She looked quickly over her shoulder and wished for the return of the old red telephone box. The newer plastic demi-booths offered no cover and no protection.
The phone was picked up on the first ring, Simonís familiar voice spoke at the other end. He sounded tired and tense. "Simon Farrar."
"I know Iím on an unsecure line, but what the bloody hell is going on?" Rachel said quickly.
"What? Yas-" Simon stopped himself as he spoke her name. He took a deep breath and resumed speaking. "Iím afraid I donít quite get you." He replied, deliberate caution coloring his voiceÖ
"I had a problem at dinner." Rachel said carefully, resisting the urge to shout. "Some of your associates wanted to have a word with me. A very restrictive word." Rachel wished there was a way for her to vent her spleen at being accosted by a several members of Britainís security police, the Special Branch, while she was waiting to meet another contact in a SoHo restaurant. Being arrested for no visibly good reason was not among her favorite things to do, and she was forced to create a great deal of chaos to be able to slip away. But this was a public telephone, and she had to play by the rules.
"Ah." She could hear his nod. "That. Iím sorry, there was a spot of misunderstanding and I couldnít reach you to explain, you werenít at home when I called."
Of course I wasnít there! Rachel silently raged. You think I would tell you where Iím actually staying?
"I see." She tried to relax and was only moderately successful. "So whatís going on?" She asked again.
"Thereís been a bit of good news. Since, ah, dinner, I mean." He added quickly. "Could you come by the pub? You know, the Kingís Arms?" That was the agency slang for a Whitehall office they used for "public" meetings.
Rachel could hear the insincerity and doubt in his voice. She sighed in relief, and hoped she sounded convincing. Everything about this conversation so far had told her that she was being lured into a trap.
"Oh, okay. Sure, Simon. Give me half an hour, trafficís horrible. Iíll have to grab the Tube." With that, she slammed the phone down and leaned heavily against the boothís partial wall.
"Terrific." She muttered. Farrarís obviously decided that Iím the leak after all. She sighed. Canít say I blame him. Freelancers are always the first to go. Who the hell do I call now?
Rachel hailed a taxi. Traffic was, in fact, quite light. She gave the cabbie twenty Pounds and told him to drive all over while she tried to think her way out of the situation.
She couldnít go to Farrar, that much was obvious. Something had come up to convince him she was the culprit. The how of it she would have to worry about later.
Mossad was busy with its dealings with Jordan and wouldnít have time for her, especially when she wasnít in the UK on their business. She swore and reached for the cellular phone that she preferred not to use. She was going to have to call Cancer Man.
Five minutes later, the cab driver nearly drove off the road when he heard his passenger curse loudly in what sounded like Arabic, throw something on the floor and start stamping on it. He quickly pulled the cab over to the side of the road and turned to scold his passenger.
"What do you think -" Rachel, who was furiously stamping her cellular phone to pieces, glanced up at the cabbie. She saw him blanch and turn back towards the road. "Where was it you wanted to go, miss?" he said quickly.
Rachel almost snapped at him but the fright she had inadvertently caused the cabbie held her tongue. "Iím sorry." She said tiredly. "I lost my temper. If thereís any damage-"
"No damage, miss." He responded quickly, back stiff. "But if you could just tell me where to - "
"Hell, Iíll get out here." She looked at the meter. There was plenty of time left from the money she had given the frightened man. "Keep the change." She told him. "Iím sorry." She apologized again, and walked out into the street.
She looked around curiously. She had no idea where she was. Finally, a Tube Station appeared in the distance, and told her she was in Holburn, just east of Covent Garden. Lacking a better plan, she ducked into the station and got on the first westbound train.
Iím going to need a new phone. She realized. Cancer Manís utter refusal to help angered and confused her. He was usually very happy to get her into his debt.
Maybe Iím treading on his toes? She wondered. No, that canít be right. What kind of interest would he have in Sixís list of penny-ante doubles? She shrugged mentally. Intelligence agencies suffered from the compulsion to know everything they could about anything possible, especially other intelligence groups. But there are better ways to do it. She shook her head. It was much more likely that he was still piqued at her attitude during their last conversation, and now she was being made to pay for it. Lousy timing, she realized.
She sighed. She was going to need a new unregistered phone, although, if she had to, she could risk it. She planned to get out of the country before dawn if she couldnít improve the situation. Even on their best day, Farrarís people wouldnít learn she had bought a new cellular until the end of the week. No, it was much more important to worry about call-tracing. Movie slickness aside, cellular calls could be traced almost as quickly as land-lines.
Rachel ground her teeth in frustration and got off the train at Covent Garden - as good a place as any to find a phone at nine pm. This was going to require a lot of fast thinking - and talking.
Rachel scanned the nearly deserted square and hoped she was half as smart as she thought she was. Obtaining the phone had been fairly easy - a large overpayment in cash had made it easy - and the other items she needed were readily available through legitimate markets. Simon had been surprised to hear from her again, and angry that she wasnít at the Ďpubí. He had resisted a public meeting at first, but had finally capitulated. Probably because she had suggested such an open location as Convent Garden.
The Garden - market long gone and now overrun with tourists - was never completely deserted, and very easy to observe from several vantage points. So it would be very difficult for Rachel to cause a fuss, and easy for Farrar to restrain her, having legitimate might on his side. Once again, Rachel thanked providence that Farrar didnít know her true state.
Precisely on time, Simon stepped out of a taxi and approached her table. Rachel, a white carrier bag in hand, moved to meet him and kept him walking past the spot where she had been waiting for ten minutes.
"What-" he began.
"Keep going." Rachel said quietly. "Youíre perfectly safe. What, do you think this is all a plan to kill you?" Rachel asked bitterly. Simon didnít reply. "Oh, come on." Rachel said, exasperated. "Iím not that stupid." She was steering him towards a small blind alley, behind a closed tee-shirt shop. Simon couldnít help looking over his shoulder, alarmed.
"Theyíre right behind, donít worry."
"The horde of cops you no-doubt have following us." Rachel told him. Simon gave a guilty start at that. "You would have made a lousy field agent." Rachel told him wearily. They had stopped beside some garbage cans. "Now strip."
"What?" Rachel could see his blush in the dark.
"You heard me. Strip. Youíre a section head of MI6 and if youíre not wired for sound right now, youíre dumber than I thought." Simonís color deepened. "I thought so." Rachel nodded. "Off with it and if your boys come swarming in, now, weíre both dead, got it?"
Simon reluctantly removed his cotton shirt while Rachel kept an anxious eye out for a horde of policeman. No such horde appeared. They must have taken her seriously. There were some advantages to a reputation as a stone-cold killer, she realized.
Rachel looked at Simon, bare chested and shivering in the cool evening air. There was no movie-style getup strapped to his chest, but they both knew that didnít mean anything. She shook her head. "All of it, Simon. I know that it can be hidden anywhere." She held up the plastic bag she carried. "Iíve got a whole change for you here."
Simon glared at her and reluctantly complied. That told her all she needed to know.
Once he was redressed, in a touristy tee shirt, sweatpants and canvas sneakers, Rachel felt a lot better. She looked over her shoulder, saw nothing there, and Cloaked the pair of them. Leading Simon away from the abandoned clothing and store front, she spoke quickly and quietly. "Weíre leaving now. Youíre men wonít be able to follow. If you say anything louder than a whisper before I say itís okay, Iíll gut you."
A movement worthy of a stage magician produced a knife in her hand. Simon stared at it and her and at a group of tourists no more than five feet away. They seemed totally unaware of their presence. He looked at her, puzzled and somewhat scared. "See, Simon. I always told you Iím invisible." She said lightly. "Iím the slickest thing since Lamont Cranston."
"The Shadow, Simon. God, didnít you ever listen to the radio?" Simon didnít reply. "Well, your loss. Címon, your men canít hear us and canít see us and, once we get where weíre going, we can finally have a private chat."
"And where are we going?" Simonís voice was tight with anger and worry.
"Well, itís a beautiful Friday night in London. There are a lot of places we can go, but I think weíll go to the theatre..."
The National Theatre was known internationally as an architectural mistake, but Rachel liked it. It had several unexpected angles and terrible lighting and was utterly deserted after the last shows let out. This made it an ideal place for privacy.
Rachel sat down on a bench overlooking the slow flowing Thames river. The weather lately had been cool and damp, even for an English summer, so while the river may have been running high, the smell was tolerable. Not many metropolitan rivers could be bearable during summer.
Simon sat down on the same bench, as far away as he could.
"Stop that." Rachel sighed irritably, looking around for unwanted observers. "If I wanted to hurt you, I could have done it last night. Or in Covent Garden. Or on the way here. Youíre safe, I promise."
Unsurprisingly, Simon didnít relax. Rachel shrugged at that.
"So, whatís going on?" she asked finally. "One moment Iíve volunteered to help you find a mole, and the next thing I know, youíve got the Branch trying to arrest me."
Simon glared at her. "I donít have to tell you anything. I think you know."
"No I bloody donít!" Rachel snapped. "And donít try to intimidate me, you piece of gristle." Simon stiffened. Rachel tardily realized that alienating him wasnít a good idea, but she didnít think she could ease up now without appearing entirely irrational. "Iíll tell you what I know. All I know is that you send me a message like the Empire is danger of falling and cash in a huge favor for a standard courier job - and then fail to mention that Iím bait for a trap." Simon tried to interrupt her and she spoke over him. "No, donít try to tell me it was a diversion, because youíre a terrible liar. So, the whole thing gets blown wide open by, it seems somebody from the inside. Of course youíre going to suspect me, I understand that, but donít ever send the police after me. Men in black uniforms bring out the worst in me, they really do." The last was said almost as an aside, and Simon wondered at it.
Rachel shook her head angrily and focused back on the present. "Anyway. Look, I understand your doubts, and I have no idea whatís given you enough evidence for an arrest, but itís not me. The last thing I want to do is burn my bridges with you. What the hell benefit would I get out of becoming a mercenary?"
"Money." Simon said simply. "More money. Thatís what tipped you."
"I beg your pardon?" Rachel said carefully. "And what reliable source told you this?"
"We found the mole earlier today. Clumsy bugger, left his fingerprints where he shouldnít." Simon wondered at the wisdom of telling her this, but she had managed to evoke strong fear in him, and it was something he didnít like. "He said you were part of it, knew about the sting all along. He had already dropped the genuine documents in Victoria, and you passed them along to the next cutout, under the guise of a botched operation. You pick up the correct, for us, bag from them and come to me in full of righteous wrath."
Rachel took a deep breath. "And what evidence did he give you?"
"Aside from the fact that he knew all about an operation that he shouldnít?" Simon asked dryly. Rachel winced. "Letís see, he knew all about the sting, he had taken files from an area he shouldnít even have access to, he knew about you and your part in the operation, and he knew that you were going to be at La Traviata restaurant at nine oíclock this evening."
Rachel managed to keep her composure until that last sentence. "Excuse me? How the fuck could he claim that?"
"He said heís supposed to meet you there, give you your payoff."
"Oh, come on! Youíve run enough operations to know that things arenít run like that! A cutout making a payment?" Rachel asked scornfully.
Simon shrugged. "Unlikely, Iíll grant you, but why should we be the only agency thatís under-staffed?"
And full of incompetents, Rachel didnít add. "Okay. I can see how you would take that." She admitted. "But I was there because I was called there."
"By whom?" Simon demanded.
"I canít tell you that." Rachel snapped. Mostly because I donít knowÖHe had the Mossad code-phrase. Oh shitÖ
"We both got set up." She realized.
"Whoever is running that dandy mole of yours who turned up a bit too conveniently must have been on the same team that called me to La Traviata. Youíre being dragged off the scent."
Simon considered that possibility.